No written on paper

Just Say No

The world-renowned family therapist Virginia Satir used to wear a medallion around her neck. The word yes was emblazoned on one side of the medallion, and on the other side, the word no. She often said that one of her primary tasks was to help her clients learn to say yes when they meant yes, and no when they meant no.

Those who work in the growing field of addiction recovery, especially recovery from codependence, emphasize the need for personal integrity—that is, honesty with yourself and others. Virginia Satir estimated that codependence afflicts over 90 percent of the U.S. population. “The disease of lost selfhood,” as author Charles Whitfield, MD, calls codependency, is probably at the root of all other addictions. It results from focusing too much on what is outside of yourself and thereby depending on others to define what you think, how you feel, and what you do.

The High Cost of Yes

While an attitude of openness to life is definitely health-promoting, saying yes to life means saying no a good deal of the time, too. People who are afraid of disapproval from others will say yes regardless of their true feelings to avoid rocking the boat.

The question can range from the trivial (“Would you like a cup of coffee?”) to the serious (“Can I stay at your apartment for a few weeks?”). When it comes to dealing with doctors or other caregivers, it is easy to fall into the trap of being a passive patient, afraid to say no to a suggested procedure, for instance, even though you may feel very ambivalent about it.

The advantage of telling the truth is you don’t have to remember what you said.

– Rita Mae Brown

There is a high price to pay for such a lack of honesty in your personal relationships and in your dealings with professionals. Here’s why:

  • It’s stressful. Holding in feelings of anger or frustration while smiling and saying yes causes unnecessary tension, and if you do this continually it may erupt in physical symptoms or emotional confusion and instability.
  • It’s confusing. Other people will read the true message in your body language, tone of voice, or energy level. They will be unsure of what you are really saying and will question your trustworthiness.
  • It undermines yourself. You erode your own self-esteem when you deny that you have insight, opinions, intuitions, and value judgments. By saying yes when you mean no, you give up your vote over what goes on in your own life. The more you deny yourself, the more you may feed feelings of low self-worth and set in motion the cycle of dishonesty/guilt/self hatred/depression.
  • It disempowers others. When you assume that other people will be upset or fall apart because you say no, you are assuming they do not have the strength to hold on to their own convictions. Genuine friendship or colleagueship cannot grow from such a weak foundation. Loneliness is often the result.

Learning to Say No

Admittedly, saying no is not easy if a lifetime of ambivalent yes-saying has preceded it. You may find that you are suddenly less popular with certain people (especially those who are afraid to think for themselves). Keep in mind that the practice of saying no does not imply being nasty, cold, or arrogant toward others. No is just no. It can still be said in a way that respects the other.

To practice saying no, you may want to start with matters of small consequence and work up to the bigger ones. Here are a variety of approaches:

Practice on yourself. Stand in front of a mirror and practice saying no in a variety of ways. Experiment with different phrases that feel natural to you: “No thank you, but thanks for asking.” “Doing that would require more [time, work, money] than I’m willing to spend right now.” “I’ve decided to cut back on my outside commitments in order to put more time into my [home life, schoolwork, relationship with my spouse].”

Write out, in simple sentences, the clear no message that you may be afraid to deliver. Use this script when you need to call someone to say no or practice it before meeting someone in person. For example: “I know that you need help on this project, and it was great to work on it with you last year, but I have other priorities at this time that require my attention, so I will be unable to assist you. Good luck in getting the volunteers you need, and please call me again for next year.”

Avoid apologizing. Practice your script until it sounds natural to you. The more often you speak in ways that are genuinely congruent with your own thoughts and feelings, the easier it will become.

Examine the ways in which you currently spend your time and energy, including your diet and exercise programs. Determine which activities no longer support your wellbeing.

Make a list of No Mores and post it where you will see it often. Check off one or two items you could most easily drop, and plan to get at them right away. Think back to the last time you wanted to say no but didn’t. Recall, with as much detail as you can, your feelings about that situation. Forgive yourself for your lack of honesty, if that was the case. Decide whether you want to, if you can, remedy that situation by saying no now. In any case, reaffirm your intention to say no—as appropriate—in the future.

Reflect on the following integrity statements. Such statements form the context for saying yes and saying no in a way that honors yourself and others. Which of these statements are appealing to you? Which would you like to commit to? Which would you like to discuss with others? Write in your journal about the implications of each statement.

  • I am willing to be more responsible for my own life in thought, speech, and action.
  • I want to support others (in a manner that is kind, generous, and compassionate) in being more responsible for themselves.
  • I wish to value interdependence in my life (we’re all here together, humans and other creatures) and to live in harmony with that realization.
  • I wish to honestly acknowledge both mistakes and successes, in myself and others, without judgment or overindulgence.
  • I am willing to honor and respect my whole being: my body, my mind, my emotions, and my spirit.
  • I want to remain open to feedback and flexible in my dealings with the environment, with myself, and with others.
  • I value my word as a sacred pledge, to myself and to others, and wish to be more trustworthy and dependable, in small matters as well as in large ones.

You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.

– Kahlil Gibran

  • I wish to honor my dreams, goals, and ideals and to work toward bringing them into reality. I wish to honor the dreams, goals, and ideals of others, and to assist them (as appropriate) in bringing these into reality.
  • I wish to ask for help and to allow people to help me as an expression of shared humanity, even if I’m feeling guilty, unworthy, or dependent.
  • I wish to honor and trust my basic goodness.

Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.

The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at ( The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.

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Written by John W Travis MD MPH

Explore Wellness in 2021