Everybody wants to be liked. Perhaps it’s a product of the society we live in, but most of us feel a little bad when somebody else doesn’t approve of us or our actions. Some take it further, crave the validation of others, and start living for likes and follows on social media. It’s easy to recognise this as a problem, especially now that the impact this has on our mental health has become widely agreed upon. As someone who has recently switched my own Instagram account to private, started posting less and focusing more on real relationships with the people around me, I don’t feel as trapped in the clutches of this particular issue anymore. However, I’m still grappling with a related problem: I have a very, very hard time saying no.
I know I’m not alone in being a people pleaser. Disappointing someone doesn’t feel good, and when we care about people, we want to do whatever we can to express that sentiment, sometimes even when it isn’t the right thing for us. Our social media culture has us all feeling FOMO when we miss out on a good time, and it pops up on our feed later. Furthermore, many of us, especially those who are more introverted, have even been encouraged to be yes-people in order to expose ourselves to new experiences that we may not necessarily have if we follow our natural impulse to say “no” to things.
But lately the word “no” has been developing a new kind of power, or as William Leith writes for the Guardian, it’s “making a comeback”.
Leith writes that suppressing your urge to say yes to everything forces you to stop relying on impulsiveness, and look to other parts of your brain for guidance, and that this is particularly important because of how much the world has changed in the last decade.
“We used to live in a world in which we didn’t need an inner no, because no was all around us. Now we live in a world designed to give us what we think we want. Now yes is all around us. An outer yes requires an inner no.”
According to Leith, information that enters our brains goes through the Limbic System, or what he calls our “inner chimp”, first. When you see something you want, the inner chimp’s voice pipes up very quickly. It makes (very loud) snap judgements based on impulses, meaning that everything you hear and see is framed by these impulses. The prefrontal cortex, or the part of the brain that makes humans unique, is where we make rational decisions after balancing pros and cons. The little voice that comes from this part of the brain is a lot quieter and harder to hear (sometimes just harder to listen to).
It doesn’t help that, these days, the whole world is designed for our chimp brains. “Given the crush of technology, email, social media, and 24-hour news, most of us react and decide too quickly. We are hard-wired to snap respond to fast, salient stimulus, even when it is to our disadvantage,” says Frank Partnoy, who authored a book called Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. We seek instant gratification and to escape marinating in our Fear Of Missing Out, but listening to the chimp brain can result in fewer benefits than slowing down, prioritising, saying “no”, and waiting on delayed (but often very sweet) gratification can.
OK, so now that we know that our Limbic System’s impulses are controlling many of our yes’s, it should be easy to tone them down a little and make more thoughtful decisions, many of which might be no’s, right? Not really. Because we still have to overcome trying to be good people.
That sounds bad, but as Dolly Chugh says in her TED talk, many of us care very deeply about feeling like, and being seen as, a good person. She says that we “work to protect that good person identity” regardless of the fact that each of us has a slightly different idea of what that even means.
Chugh believes, though, that holding on to being what we consider to be a good person is often what stands in our way of being a better person. “Perhaps we don’t realise how much our self-view as a good person is affecting our behaviour, that in fact, we’re working so hard to protect that good person identity…that we’re not actually giving ourselves space to learn from our mistakes and actually be better people”. Perhaps we’re working so hard to be a good person and say “yes” to every request, that we make decisions which have negative consequences for our mental health and our relationships with the people we’re saying “yes” to.
Chugh says that this is because we expect being a good person to be clear-cut and simple. “We have this definition of good person that’s either-or. Either you are a good person or you’re not. Either you have integrity or you don’t. …And in this either-or definition, there’s no room to grow.”
Perhaps it would be better for everyone if we thought about what’s best for us from time to time (in a considerate way, of course) and said “no” when we felt like we needed to. You can’t become annoyed by and bitter towards the colleague who always wants to join you and talk your ear off at lunch time, if you’d just decline from time to time and have that time to yourself. But no can be a very heavy and uncomfortable word when you’re not used to it, and using it takes some practice at first.
According to Vanessa van Edwards, lead investigator at scienceofpeople.com, and author of Captivate: The Science of Suceeding with People, There are three important points to remember when you feel you need to say no, but don’t want to be awkward, damage relationships or feel guilty
- Plan your no’s ahead of time: Ask people to text or email you their request so that you can check your schedule before agreeing to it. Once they send that follow up, (and given you a little time to process) it’ll be easier for you to craft a polite reply in order to tell them you can’t agree to their request.
- Don’t offer an explanation: Van Edwards writes that “the problem with offering an excuse is it gives people the opportunity to change their request so that your excuse doesn’t justify your no”, which could set you up for awkwardness.
- Offer an alternative: If you’re trying to maintain or build a positive relationship, you can soften your “no”, by offering an alternative that’s more suitable to you. This compromise can lessen the guilt you feel and the offence taken by the other party when you refuse their request.
Just like strengthening a muscle or developing any skill, it might take some training in order to master saying “no” when it’s necessary. But it might free up some much needed time for other things, and at the very least make us aware of how our inner chimp operates when faced with an option of whether to go for something or sit it out.
I know I’ll still be practising this for a while, but I’m looking forward to monitoring my own improvement and finding ways to improve my productivity, mental and emotional health, and even my relationships, just by using that one magic word.