How to say no to your family and partner without being an asshole.

May 8, 2020

Posted in  Thoughts

Saying no is hard.

For a people-pleaser like me, saying no is a downright emotional roller-coaster. Waves of anxiety, guilt and self-loathing rise up whenever I think of saying no.

Sure there’s some science that explains why saying no is unpleasant for most of us, linked to an innate desire to cooperate as social creatures, but I also think I’ve been brainwashed by things like:

Credits to Thought Catalog.

For me, that translates into thoughts such as:

  • I will always make the needs of someone I love a top priority.
  • I will always sacrifice for someone important to me.
  • I will always make time for someone I care about.

Saying no thus isn’t just a decision.

Saying no threatens my ideal of what it means to be a good daughter, sister and partner.

I’m not saying we should never sacrifice for our loved ones. There will be many, many times when it is absolutely the right thing to do.

The problem with such absolute statements is that I’m often over sacrificing, even when I don’t have to.

I recently learned that being ‘selfish’ can actually be better for the relationship.

So I’ve been practicing saying no more.

That said, saying no to my loved ones still makes me feel like an asshole.

Changing from over-accommodating to saying no with my partner and family is so much harder because of the depth of history, connection and emotion involved.

With history comes automatic responses and habitual expectations. Saying no when I previously said yes would be met with surprise and maybe even anger.

Unlike colleagues and friends, you’re stuck with family for life. And, well, hopefully your partner too. All the more I want to preserve the relationship and not rock the boat.

The closer we are, the more volatile we are in reaction to someone’s yes and nos.

The value of no, in my (still reforming) people-pleaser mind, did not outweigh its risks in such loaded relationships.

However I’ve also come to realize that precisely because these relationships are so loaded, there’s more room to experiment.

I may piss off a friend one day, and she can decide to never talk to me with little to lose.

Do the same with my mom, and whilst we may have a cold war for a week, there’s room for reconciliation precisely because we have history, are family for life and are emotionally invested.

Saying no to loved ones takes extra TLC.

I’ve been enthusiastically practicing my ‘no’ing self with increasing confidence around friends, ex-colleagues and even service staff.

Friend: “Hey wanna see a movie?”
Me: “No thanks, not that keen.”
Friend: “Ok cool.”

Saying no directly, unapologetically and without the need to explain myself has been pretty empowering, I must say.

I tried the same with my dad one day and it fell horribly flat.

Dad: “Hey wanna see a movie?”
Me: “No thanks, not that keen.”
Dad: “?….”

The same direct and unapologetic “no” I’d been throwing around did not go down well.

Instead, he was confused and a little hurt by how I was so quick to dismiss the suggestion of a shared experience.

With loved ones, I’ve learned that a no should be delivered with tenderness.

Broken down, that means:

1. The other should feel heard:
Ask questions to learn more about the request

2. Build mutual understanding:
Offer an explanation

3. Offer an alternative:
If desired and available

A better way to have said the same to my dad would be:

Dad: “Hey wanna see a movie?” Me: “What do you have in mind?”
Dad: “I was thinking of watching [action film here]”
Me: “That sounds great, but I’d like to have a quiet day today, maybe another time?”

Saying no still feels unnatural and painful.

With patience, openness and kindness, I think I’m en route to mastering the art of saying no.

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