Why Is It Hard to "Just Say ‘No’"?: Ten Barriers to Asserting Your Individuality, Intentionality, and Integrity – Part I

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Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

When it comes to dealing with stress, most of us are familiar with the “R and R” recommendation – Rest and Recreation. However, “N and N” may be just as critical: the ability to say “No” and to “Negotiate.” Over the years, I’ve heard more people declare that, “Until I learned to say ‘No,’ I was living on the edge of stress!” My home grown “aphormation” (a neologistic mix of aphorism and affirmation): A firm “No” a day keeps the ulcers away, and the hostilities too!

Still, for many folks across the generational spectrum, saying “No” with conviction requires more than “Just Say NO” exhortation. While a clear “No” is a vital tool for being assertive and effective at the work, home, and relational battlefronts, however, to paraphrase the old caveat, when it comes to saying and meaning “No”…even for many adults, it’s easier thought than said or done!


Let’s examine why many folks have difficulty using this provocative two-letter “N”-word; let’s explore “Ten Barriers to Saying ‘No’ and Setting Healthy Priorities-Boundaries”:

1) Societal Norms. When it comes to role behavior, our culture is no longer so locked into sexual stereotyping. Men are not exclusively aggressive (hunters) and women are not the only nurturers (gatherers). Nevertheless, some inhibitions if not prohibitions still exist (not to mention the fact that women still do a disproportionate share of the childcare and housework). Glass ceiling issues regarding equal pay and career advancement are still a reality, especially for minority women. And an aggressive and mentally sharp businesswoman can still be labeled a “shrew” rather than being admired for being shrewd or savvy, terms often garnered by her male counterpart. To the degree that there are gender differences regarding: a) early socialization in the family and/or in the classroom, b) access to appropriate mentors and positions of institutional authority, and c) stereotyping and/or discrimination in various shapes, sizes, ages, and colors then the playing and labeling fields will not be level or just. For many women, appropriate aggression and vital assertion will seem less natural; it may feel less safe in key roles and relations to set limits and boundaries, to just say “No!”

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2) Family Values, Sibling Order and Attitudes. Let’s sharpen our focus by concentrating on, perhaps, the most powerful socializing force — the family. And while families certainly can reinforce sex-role stereotyping, let’s not overlook the fact that a variety of family factors come into play when examining an ability to say “No” in interpersonal situations. Also, both by temperament as well as upbringing, there are many men for whom being assertive or setting limits is a daunting task. Here are a variety of family dynamics:

a. Birth Order. Birth order may be influential; firstborns often feel more pressure to be the responsible “good child.” Parents may be more relaxed and lenient with subsequent children. For these offspring saying “No” may seem less daunting.

b. Substance Abuse. Substance abuse in families may also contribute to a sense of shame around being aggressive, especially if an abuser was often enraged or out of control of his emotions or his life responsibilities. Other children prefer to hide or become invisible; some act out their hurt, anger, and shame (also providing a distraction for the abusing family member).

c. Autocratic and Judgmental Figures. Rigidly righteous parental figures or other significant authorities demanding absolute loyalty may stifle healthy individuality. Or a child shamed into silence if not into unquestioned loyalty for fear of being exposed as disrespectful, defiant, or damaged goods may have difficulty setting boundaries. I’ve tried to capture the resultant autocratic irony in my “Law of the Loyalty Loop and Lock”: Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer!

d. Shaming Anger and Individuality. Families who view emotionally expressive children (especially the emotion of anger) as “mad” or “bad” or who attempt to stifle a child’s separation and individuation process through threats or guilt too often raise bottled-up children (or offspring who eventually hit the bottle). This constrictive and controlling mode of relating is often fueled by a sense of emptiness, shame, and fear of abandonment.

3) Fear of One’s Own Aggression. Some individuals cut off their aggressive feelings because they are afraid of or ashamed of their own potential for explosiveness. To succumb to anger means you are being irrational or “out of control”; perhaps an antagonist has gotten to you. To show anger is a sign that your opponent has “won.” A family member who psychically collapses, guilt trips, or explodes when a child expresses anger may be teaching a powerful lesson: not only is your anger wrong but, in addition, you are destructive (to yourself and toward others)!

Please note…it takes a lot of energy to turn aggression inward and bottle it up. Expending all this conscious and unconscious effort to hold back a natural part of your “self” is not only energy depleting and exhausting. This process of self-constriction may induce a sense of helplessness and depression.

4) Fear of Retribution or Rejection. Another factor is that others may resent your attempt at being assertive or saying “No.” Will the other person subtly put you down, openly attack, or expose your vulnerabilities? Will this antagonist use ridicule, or perhaps reject you for not giving him what he wants? Will a supervisor hold a grudge or believe that: a) her authority is being challenged, b) you are being resistant or defiant, or c) she is being shown up?

Or will your “No” be a sign that you are behaving out of character. You are not your “self.” The opponent may attempt to trivialize your position or demonize your person: “What’s wrong with you!” An assertion of difference or individuality may lead to ostracism by a peer group.

5) Fear of Justification. Related to the above, some folks back away from saying “No” because of that potentially intimidating counter: “Why not?” Now you feel on the spot. And the rejoinder, “I just feel this way right now,” is never acceptable. Of course there are situations when we need to back up our “No” with a reasoned explanation. However, there are many occasions when “I’m not sure” is an honest and acceptable response. Having the strength to be tentative or being able to take a time out is often a desirable problem-solving step. You are asserting your space even without providing an overt “No.” (This is a useful and honorable step if, in fact, you do further reflection or research and then get back to the other party in a timely manner.)

6) Fear of Being Labeled. For some in authority the first sign of a subordinate’s “No” signals trouble and, not surprisingly, the naysayer is a “troublemaker.” Or he has a “bad attitude” and is not being a “team player.” Conformist “group think” is often a byproduct of a powerful (yet insecure) individual or environment that has little tolerance for a “No.” When a person with a contrary idea or belief is dependent on the authority figure (psychologically, financially, etc.) or such a person feels vulnerable in his or her position then, not surprisingly, staying in the authority’s good graces is a paramount motivator. Self-censorship or doctoring the message is not unlikely.

7) The Boundary Issue. Regarding interpersonal engagements, we all have a sense of a physical space and a psychological space that influences our own levels of comfort or discomfort. This feeling of comfort is a function of both actual and emotional closeness (and commitment) and distance (or detachment). I call this psychosocial dynamic one’s sense of “personal space.” (Comfort in personal space is also influenced by cultural norms and practices, e.g., the accepted physical distance between parties engaged in conversation.) Too much actual or perceived closeness (smothering anxiety) or too much distance (separation anxiety) often triggers issues related to: a) status and self-esteem, b) threshold levels for losing control, emotionally or behaviorally, c) predisposition for emptiness or depression, d) dependency issues and the fear of losing one’s self in a codependent relationship or, conversely, e) a desire to be enmeshed with the other so as to numb or obliterate alienation and/ or isolation as well as a tormented self.

Of course, being enmeshed in a group sometimes allows individuals to be defiant and to act out their aggression, fears, or feelings of inferiority because of the anonymity found in group membership. (Think of group scapegoating.) Also, having group cover makes it easier for an individual to deny or diffuse responsibility for his or her actions.

A Personal Vignette: Bullies without Boundaries

Let me share a personal example. From the age of ten to fourteen, two of my “friends” living in the same six-story apartment building would frequently bully me, mostly verbally and psychologically. One night the tormenting had reached such a crescendo that in a panic state, despite feelings of fear and shame, I finally cried uncontrollably to my father. My dad immediately went upstairs and confronted the father of one of the bullies. Alas, we didn’t talk further about why I wasn’t able to stand up for myself or why I wasn’t able to stay away from my tormentors. (I suppose a significant part of the answer for a lack of self-integrity and chronic helplessness relates to my overt symptomatology merely being part of the dysfunctional family iceberg. To the degree my father was not ready to confront his own coping strategy for dealing with long-standing mood swings and depression – ongoing twice/year electroshock therapy as opposed to seeking psychotherapy – I too would anguish and suffer in shame and silence.)

Alas, neither my dad’s intervention nor my tortured silence would allow for healthy distance from my antagonists. The next morning I was ringing the doorbell of one of the bullies for our daily trek to school.

“My god, why?” you might ask. It’s tragically simple: I was so frightened that they would really be plotting against me, that they would be seeking revenge for my having exposed their bullying. Hyper-vigilance necessitates being in close proximity. (Alas, I had many of the symptoms of a battered spouse.) Healthy boundaries are not possible when you have so little sense of self. (And this feeling of helplessness and hopelessness is only exacerbated by unrecognized childhood depression.) The torment you know is preferable to the imagined (or unimagined) torment conceived in a near paranoid or panic state. And, not surprisingly, as an adult it took years of therapy to resurrect to full consciousness this traumatic period of my life. It often requires healthy dependence with a therapist or a support group as well as personal courage to grieve fully the years of pain, panic, and silent shame of a long-standing abusive relationship.

8) Inability to Know or Trust One’s Gut. As we’ve seen, there are a variety of critical conditions contributing to both the muffling of an inner voice and an inability to risk shedding a pleasing, traumatized, or muted persona. Consider this sequence of obstacles to “getting real”:

a) long-standing feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness,
b) growing up in a family that shames, slams or shuns the expression of feelings, especially anger and
c) over time, losing the ability to recognize and label your feelings. For such a person, his inner emotional world is mostly numb. Not surprisingly this person is often very fearful, truly having “no guts” to trust. (Conversely, in his emotional ignorance, the battering personality labels most emotional experience or expression that’s not aggressive in nature as a sign of being a wimp or of being unmanly. For this psychically stunted individual, “emotional” people are whiners; pathetic whiners at that. Of course, a batterer might see himself as a “strong silent type.” Though I suspect the more accurate dynamic is as follows: “For me to be strong you must be silent!”)

9) Fear of Being Alone or Abandoned.  When a fear of actual or psychological abandonment infuses the parent-child dynamic, a child may take on a false, “too good” persona. Alas, what often gets lost is the necessity for setting boundaries and the need for some conflict in establishing an identity. A child’s ability to say “No” to a parent or even “I don’t like you” is not automatically or simply a sign of willful defiance or a negative or hostile personality. Such a stance may also reflect a child who is evolving a fairly solid, “good enough” sense of self. The child is not so symbolically tied to the parent; he or she can risk some emotional separateness. There’s some basic trust, mostly on an unconscious level, that a “No” will not trigger physical or psychological aggression or abandonment by the significant adult. And, of course, learning early that you do not have to swallow a “No” for fear of parental rejection eventually makes it easier to “Just say ‘No'” to adolescent peers as well as McDonalds’ fries.

10) Fear of Standing Out. Some individuals are afraid of projecting their individuality. They would rather blend into the crowd, conform to the norm, or replay the “invisible child” role (a not uncommon development for a sibling in an alcoholic or abusive family). Others are afraid to say “No” for fear of confrontation: “So what would you do “Mr. Negative?” Suddenly, an upfront contrary stance has you on the spot, if not in the spotlight. Now performance anxiety pressure is building. As we’ve noted, whether out of jealousy or a perception that you are defying role proscriptions, a “No” can be seen as a selfish act or as a declaration of disloyalty. And for the target of such a judgmental barrage, self-censorship is not the only worry. For people who continually fear and suppress their own complex and genuine individuality, there is as much “safety” in being numb as there is safety in numbers.

Closing Summary

This segment has focused on ten psychosocial barriers to affirming priorities, setting boundaries and saying “No!” Of course, in response to the above barriers, there are some aggressive personalities who spew a reflexive and rigid “No!” Not surprisingly, some of the same underlying issues are at play: fear of losing control, feeling put down or shamed by an authority, feeling stifled, fearing a loss of self, perceiving closeness or emotional dependence as a sign of weakness or as an invasion of one’s overtly fortified and covertly vulnerable psychological and physical space. However, “Ten Barriers to Saying ‘No’ and Setting Healthy Priorities-Boundaries” has examined the imploders more than the exploders.

Let me recap the ten basic barriers and challenges to saying “No”:

1. Societal Norms
2. Family Values, Sibling Order and Attitudes
3. Fear of One’s Own Aggression
4. Fear of Retribution and Rejection
5. Fear of Justification
6. Fear of Being Labeled
7. The Boundary Issue
8. The Inability to Know or Trust One’s Gut
9. Fear of Being Alone or Abandoned
10. Fear of Standing Out

Clearly, these can be powerful deterrents to recognizing and experiencing your individuality and integrity, that is, your genuine needs, wants, joys, fears, passions, and beliefs…your separate and genuine self or true spirit. Learning to say “No” is vital for surviving and thriving in today’s ever demanding, work-life boundary busting world.

Keep Reading By Author Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")
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