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What Happens When People Who Always Say “Yes” Say “No?"

What are the reasons and consequences for doing this

Are you the type of person who always says “yes” when others ask you to do something? If so, why? Sure we all say “yes” to requests made by others; but, if you always or almost always say “yes,” that may reflect something about you, especially if you really wanted to say “no.”

Generally speaking, people are social beings. We try to please each other so we can remain connected. Indeed, our very survival originally depended upon our ability to get along, form groups, and cooperate as a unit. Now, however, we no longer have to fend off marauding wild animals, or constantly encounter invading hordes bent on killing us and taking our property. Yet, our need to fit in remains a strong drive.

Although we may no longer have the need to be in a group to survive, we do have the psychological need to form social attachments. These attachments provide us with

  • companionship, love, and support
  • a sense of belonging where we can feel safe and protected as opposed to feeling isolated

Most people want to feel socially attached and not excluded. Consequently, we act in ways that favor social approval. The need for social approval fosters

  • being part of the group
  • being a team player
  • cooperation
  • doing what we can to avoid ostracism, criticism, and exclusion
  • a concern about other people’s opinion of us
  • our self-esteem, popularity, and reputation
  • being socially acceptable and conforming

The need for social approval has many positive aspects; however, it also can be psychologically harmful.

Denise is Carole’s neighbor; they share their children’s carpool. Lately, Denise has been asking Carole to drive her shift almost every day because Denise has had time conflicts. Carole doesn’t mind helping Denise by driving the extra shifts; but, to do so, Carole has had to cancel doctors’ appointments, work late hours to make up the lost time, and run her errands at inconvenient hours. Carole is now feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, anxious, and annoyed. Carole doesn’t want to say “no” to Denise because she doesn’t want to lose their friendship; but, she also doesn’t feel too happy about the situation.

Carole’s “yes saying” is not unusual. We all say “yes” to doing things we may not want to do, don’t have the time to do, or may not feel competent doing. BUT, we say “yes” and do it anyway. A problem arises when we start experiencing negative reactions. These reactions may be directed toward the person making the request and/or ourselves for having said “yes.” Carole’s problem is that she started to suffer and developed negative feelings, and did not talk to Denise about this. Unfortunately, allowing such negative experiences to continue may further result in the “yes sayer” feeling resentment, exploited, unappreciated, or obligated.

To do for others is admirable; but, it can also come at the cost of your personhood. You no longer respect your own needs. Sometimes, we even justify our “yes” saying by telling ourselves that our needs and wants are not that important.

Many people who say “yes” and are reluctant to say “no” (even when they want to) do so for many reasons including

  • wanting to maintain a certain image to others and themselves (e.g., I am unselfish, cooperative, accommodating; I am indispensable)
  • fearing the loss of something (a spouse’s love, a friendship, a job)
  • believing that they cannot or should not say “no”

Life is a continuous series of interactions and situations where there are positive, negative, and neutral outcomes. At some point in our life (and the sooner, the better), we should examine our emotional reactions, thoughts, and behaviors to see if there are patterns or circumstances we would like to continue, change, or eliminate. Whatever decision you make, it will come at a cost. Are you willing to risk the psychological and physical consequences? To help you make an informed choice, you should perform a “cost-benefit” analysis. Do the benefits that come from saying “yes” outweigh the costs of saying “no”? Only you can answer this question; but it’s clearly one that we should consider fully and answer honestly.

Additionally, it would helpful to explore why we always say “yes” and whether we really need to do that now. We might be in a different place than we were before (e.g., more self-confident, more willing to take chances and be less conforming). Maybe our priorities have changed.

There is no universally correct answer for what people who always say “yes” should do. Each of us should base our decision on

  • why we do what we do
  • whether it is psychologically and physically healthy for us to continue to do this or should we change

Another issue for people who always say “yes” to consider is that saying “no” to others (e.g., older aged children, work subordinates) can be very healthy and help them develop

  • trial-and-error learning
  • a sense of responsibility, independence, and initiative

Not only can saying “no” be helpful for others, it can always be eye-opening and liberating for the individual. They may now have

  • more time to devote to activities they need or want to do
  • less stress, anger, and resentment
  • more energy and optimism
  • a greater sense of control over their time and life

Remember, we only have a finite number of years to live and enjoy our lives. Therefore, don’t be afraid to take control of your life and experience each day to the fullest and in the healthiest way you can.

More from Shoba Sreenivasan, Ph.D., and Linda E. Weinberger, Ph.D.
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More from Shoba Sreenivasan, Ph.D., and Linda E. Weinberger, Ph.D.
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