The Shame of Saying No

No. That’s it. Just no. No is a complete answer. But yet, so many of us have a tendency to apologize, justify, explain, defend, grovel and shame ourselves into a corner for our well-reasoned decisions. I am very familiar with this affliction, as a recovering people-pleaser myself.

For example, a coachee of mine recently expressed the struggle she faced in saying no to a consulting project that would take her away from home 4 nights a week, away from her 6-month old son. "Isn’t there shame in that?" she queried. "I feel morally obligated to say yes. It looks bad if I am not contributing to the bottom line." She feels morally obligated to suppress communication around having limited time and time-based boundaries. Morally obligated. Not socially obligated. Not professionally obligated. Morally. That is a heavy load to put on your own shoulders.

A lot of times, we also get in our own way by saying “no” to ourselves. We let shame and guilt stop us from even asking for a yes to what we want in the first place. I have a single female friend who works at a large financial institution in New York City, and she once said to me, I can’t ask my boss to leave the office at 6pm because I have a date -- that’s unacceptable. I have to cancel. Meanwhile, this same friend would seethe with resentment watching coworkers leave to pick up their children from daycare at 6pm, while she stayed behind after cancelling her own plans.

Why do we shame ourselves for saying no? We as women are hardwired -- and on top of that, we are additionally trained -- to be people pleasers. Back on the savannah, when we relied wholly on others for our survival, our lives literally depended on winning the approval and favor of those around us. We needed too please people (mostly men) so they would project us, provide for us, share with us and care for us and our children. We had to keep everyone happy, or risk starvation and death. Nowadays, falling out of favor may not have such dire life and death consequences. Still, we are hard coded to scramble for external validation… And we are extremely sensitive to any signs of displeasure that we can trace back to our actions.

Okay. So what's the problem with people-pleasing? There are a few side effects to the pleasing habit that may make you want to reexamine how this is playing out in your work and life.


Habitually giving into others demands while suppressing your own voice robs you of your agency. You allow yourself to become a victim of external circumstances rather than a active creator of your own work and life experience. Saying no is a powerful way of filtering what you do and do not want to come into your life. If you rarely exercise the power of “no” your reality will become increasingly lopsided, inordinately driven by the whims and desires of others.


If you say yes when you mean no, can you see how that is being dishonest? You might be nodding your head, but furiously shaking no on the inside. This lack of congruence will lead to tension, and oftentimes that tension deteriorates into resentment. If this inner conflict becomes apparent to others, it will slowly erode their trust and respect. They may start to question the verity of your answers or feel uncomfortable having to guess at what you really mean.


If you shy away from challenging or pushing back, you teach people to devalue your opinions and ideas. Others are always taking in subtle cues about how to treat you based on how you treat yourself. If you demonstrate to your boss and colleagues that your needs and preferences are always secondary to theirs, by constantly sacrificing, then they will start to see this as the natural order of things. This undermines your ability to contribute.


When you constantly say yes without consideration for your own desires and limits, guess what, you are training people to relate to you as a “yes woman”. The burden of expectation only increases over time. You may start to take on more and more work, to the point that you are overloaded and overwhelmed. But the requests never stop or slow down. They keep coming. Your reputation makes it harder and harder to say no. The vicious cycle continues.

The pitfalls described here are all good reasons to try to break the people-pleasing habit and stay true to our values, standards and preferences. It is possible to unlearn these patterns… so you can be of service without being a servant, consistently pleasant without constantly pleasing.

Next week we will describe an approach to making decisions that may be helpful to you in your efforts to check and balance your inner people-pleaser. Sign up for email updates so that you don't miss a blog post!