A number of years ago I hosted a monthly women’s group in my home where we chose personal development topics to work on over the course of a year. One year we chose the book “A Year Of Yes” by Shonda Rhimes, the amazing creator of shows like Grey’s Anatomy and recently the Netflix success, Bridgerton.
As are all of you, Shonda Rhimes is a super busy working mom trying to balance the demands of her job with also being a single mother to 3 girls, putting her true desires at the bottom of her to-do list. But after an exchange with her sister one Thanksgiving, where her sister muttered, “You never say yes to anything”, Shonda decided to spend the following year saying yes to everything she feared and chronicled that year in the New York Times best selling book “A Year of Yes”.
My women’s group followed Shonda’s monthly prompts in our study of the book, learning how to say yes to things like compliments, having fun and learning how to say yes to our bodies, to name just a few. That year-long journey with Shonda and each other made us grow in ways we hadn’t challenged ourselves to grow before.
But while that exploration was incredibly powerful in order for each of us to start to address and face our fears, especially as women, over the years I’ve noticed a trend with a lot of the accountant moms I speak to and coach. These super smart, super capable women are too frequently saying Yes to others at the expense of themselves.
For example, their knee jerk reaction to their children’s request for 5 different things for dinner is Yes, even though it’s going to create a lot more work for them at the end of their busy work day. They automatically say Yes to the friend who invites them to buy something at a Pampered Chef party, even though there’s nothing they need and can actually afford.
These women are the ones that everyone calls on when they need a favor, knowing that they’ll hear Yes, but not knowing the challenge that Yes then becomes. Their altruistic, selfless desire to help where they can, to be there for others, and to play a small part in making others happy, sounds lovely to the outside world, but as a coach, I am privy to how it feels to them on the inside and then the unwanted results it creates.
Unfortunately, these hard working, self-sacrificing women and mothers are so tired, mentally, emotionally and physically, but can’t seem to stop. Sometimes their efforts are rewarded with appreciation, but many times their efforts go unnoticed, leaving them exhausted and eventually feeling resentful and feeling like they’re being taken for granted.
Can you relate? Are you the person who says Yes more often than you’d like to? Does saying No feel uncomfortable to you? Do you cringe at the thought of other people being disappointed or unhappy with you? Do you worry about what other people will think or say if you said Yes less?
If the thought of saying Yes less is appealing, but also a little scary, then this episode is for you. There’s nothing wrong with saying Yes less, you just need to understand why you are so challenged with saying No, and I can show you how.
This week I’m going to discuss why it’s challenging for women to say Yes less and how you can start.
Why it’s challenging for women to say yes less
First off, if you have trouble saying Yes less or saying No more, it’s not your fault. This is really important to acknowledge because what often happens for a lot of women is that you find something challenging to change about yourself and then add layers of self-judgement, blame and shame on top.
You wind up either believing there must be something wrong with you if you can’t change some aspect of yourself that you’d like to change, or you feel the need to look to others to validate how hard it is and gravitate towards them. This cycle of blame/shame and then validate/gravitate, is what often keeps most of us stuck and not being able to say Yes less.
When you get caught in this cycle, it can seem like it’s impossible to say Yes less or say No more. Before you know it, you’re going to a party you don’t want to go to, you’re working on the weekends when it’s not necessary, and you’re taking care of things that others are completely capable of doing for themselves.
If you’ve been having trouble saying Yes less, you also might be having a tug-of-war going on where on the one hand, you’re feeling exhausted, but on the other hand, you’re also feeling a sense of pride or a sense of worth. While you might have growing resentments for the things you say Yes to when you really want to say No, you might also look at how happy your Yes made someone else and you make it okay that you said Yes.
The truth is that it’s challenging for women, especially working moms, to say Yes less because you have a human brain and that brain has been taught how to think over many, many years. You’ve been getting messages and programming that your brain has stored your entire life, culminating into a lot of your habits, especially the habit of saying Yes.
If you think about it, a baby isn’t born programmed to say Yes. In fact, as most mothers can attest to, once toddlers can speak, they easily say No all the time, never making themselves feel bad or wrong until someone tells them that No is not the correct response or they get some form of punishment for saying No.
The interesting thing is that from the time you were a baby, your mind was a blank slate that has been molded and shaped by the messages that the people around you wrote on that blank slate. As a young girl you were taught how to think, speak, and behave, much of which depended on your cultural background, parents, teachers and peers.
As young girls grow up, we are socialized early on that our value lies in being helpful and compliant; to not be loud and rambunctious the way boys are. As you get rewarded for your helpful and compliant behavior, your brain stores that as a way to get a hit of the feel good hormone, dopamine, and adds it to the category of survival techniques.
What’s really important to understand is that evolutionarily, humans have developed from tribal groups where reciprocity in some form or another was part of your survival. If you think about it, people who didn’t help the group weren’t helped in return and probably died out, making the genes that were passed on, really those of the people who said Yes more.
There’s even a stronger tendency to say Yes more when there’s an ongoing relationship with someone or you think you might need something from a person in the future. But even in a random encounter with a stranger, it’s often pretty hard for women to say No when someone asks for something.
Unfortunately, you just need to look at the #METOO movement and you can see how challenging it can be for women to say No, and how strongly we’ve been conditioned to say Yes, especially to those in power. On top of the social conditioning to say Yes, we also have layers of shame, both when we say an inauthentic Yes, but also when we’re uncomfortable saying No.
Although it can seem hard to say Yes less and No more, thankfully it only seems hard because you haven’t been given permission to, or taught how. The only reason anything seems hard at first is because it’s unfamiliar to your brain, but just like you learned how to walk and talk. and to add 2+2, learning the skill of saying Yes less can be taught, practiced and mastered.
How to start saying Yes less
If this has resonated with you so far, I want you to first get honest with yourself and admit whether saying Yes has become a badge of honor. You first have to get real with yourself about the initial sense of satisfaction you might be getting from being the person that says Yes all the time, or more often than you’d really like to.
When you identify as a kind, capable, go-to person that others always turn to, it’s okay to feel a sense of pride in that. The issue is that when you want to start saying Yes less, you’re going to bump up against that identity and probably feel a lot of resistance.
The reason this happens is because your human brain seeks pleasure and avoids pain, so when you want to change some aspect of your identity, it will not be on board initially. It cares more about the initial good feeling you had when you checked the Yes box, and much less about the after effects of saying Yes when you really wanted to say No.
It also cares about being accepted as part of a tribe and dramatically equates rejection as dangerous, making the approval of others mean you have a better chance of survival. This is why it’s important to become aware of your tendency to worry about what others think of you and to want their approval.
So now that you’ve acknowledged that saying Yes might have become a badge of honor, or that you think saying No will somehow affect how others think of you, I suggest you start to redefine what a “good person” does, because up until now, you’ve been defining a good person as someone who says Yes more often than not. It’s important to start accepting that good people say No, and that’s okay.
Being a good person doesn’t mean saying Yes when you really want to say No because if you think about it, you’re actually lying. My mentor says that people pleasers are liars because when you say Yes to something that you really want to say No to, you are trying to control what someone else thinks about you and you are lying about what’s true for you.
Just know that you are still a good mother if you say No to your child’s request; you are still a good person if you say No to the bridal shower invitation; you are still a good employee if you say No to staying late. The only person who can define what’s good for you, is you.
The next thing I want you to see is that when you say Yes to one thing, you’re also saying No to something else. If you’re like most of the women I speak to and coach, the thing you’re typically saying No to is yourself.
For example, when you say Yes to your boss’ request to work late, you’re saying No to your desire to spend more time with your family. When you make your children’s beds even though they’re capable of doing it themselves, you’re saying Yes to them and No to teaching them responsibility, as well as No to the time you could spend doing other things.
Remember, as women we are taught to say No to ourselves more than anyone else which then culminates into physical, emotional and mental burnout. In order to start saying Yes less to others, you have to acknowledge the ways that your Yes to them is a No to you.
No matter how long you’ve been saying Yes to others and No to yourself, you can learn how to choose you. Honestly, it is a process, just like learning how to stop people-pleasing, but you absolutely can learn how to start saying Yes less to others and saying Yes more to yourself.
It’s going to feel uncomfortable at first, but just know that it’s supposed to because this is new to your brain and it’s going to think that something has gone wrong. I promise you that nothing’s gone wrong if you feel anxious or worried as you start to say Yes less; it’s just your brain doing what it’s supposed to do when you’re working on changing one habit for another.
Also, don’t let other people’s reactions to you saying Yes less to them mean anything about you as a person. People get to be surprised, upset, or frustrated when you say No more often because their human brain has just gotten used to you saying Yes.
Other people’s reactions have nothing to do with you, and everything to do with their brain’s conditioned way of thinking. If you’ve been saying Yes more than you should, other people’s brains might be confused when you change the script, but that’s perfectly normal.
The most important thing to understand is that you don’t cause someone else’s feelings; only their optional thoughts do. For example, you don’t cause your boss to be upset when you say No to working late; his thoughts about you saying No are what’s creating his upset feeling, not you saying No.
The truth is that just because you’re uncomfortable saying No doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it. Your uncomfortability is the precursor to creating a new, more beneficial habit.
So, the next time you’re going to say No instead of your typical Yes, pause and remind yourself that it’s okay to feel anxious or worried, but do it anyway. Over time, your brain will get used to this new way of being and the uncomfortability will subside as your new habit is formed.
The last thing I suggest is to allow the urge to say Yes to be there without acting on it. This might be super uncomfortable at first, but this is going to be incredibly helpful in changing the habit of saying Yes more than you want to.
Before you say Yes, pause and don’t act on the urge; question why you would say Yes, make sure you like your reasons, and make sure you aren’t doing it out of fear of what someone else will think or do if you say No. Eventually, you’ll realize that when you do say Yes to someone or something, it’s because you really do want to say Yes, not because of some old habit or belief about what good, kind, capable people do.
I promise you that over time it does get easier to say Yes less. The best part is that what you do say Yes to is true for you, you like your reasons, and you’ll begin to really like the version of you that honors the truth.
- Are you the person who says Yes more often than you’d like to? Does saying No feel uncomfortable to you? Do you cringe at the thought of other people being disappointed or unhappy with you? Do you worry about what other people will think or say if you said Yes less? You’re not alone.
- You’ve been getting messages and programming that your brain has stored your entire life, culminating into a lot of your habits, especially the habit of saying Yes.
- You just need to look at the #METOO movement and you can see how challenging it can be for women to say No, and how strongly we’ve been conditioned to say Yes, especially to those in power.
- Being a good person doesn’t mean saying Yes when you really want to say No because if you think about it, you’re actually lying.
- No matter how long you’ve been saying Yes to others and No to yourself, you can learn how to choose you.