11th April, 2023

Why Can’t I Say No

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

Listen to this episode

On this episode

Too often, we say yes to every request and every demand, even when it’s not what we want. It’s not about people-pleasing. It’s about your values. But ask yourself, is it worth it? Is sacrificing your peace and well-being a worthy cost of validating your internal dialogue?

In a world that applauds the grind, learning to say no will keep you grounded. Setting boundaries helps you care for yourself. When you care for yourself, you can look after others to the best of your ability.

In this quick dip episode, we uncover the root of the problem of our struggle with saying no. We flesh out the people-pleasing tendencies and internal shame around setting boundaries. Your value does not equate to how hard you work and how much you give yourself to other people. Set yourself free from the internal stories and scripts you’re telling yourself. Once you do, you can get clear on what truly matters.

If you want to know how to start saying yes to yourself, stay tuned to this episode.

Show links

Reasons to listen

  1. Uncover the two myths about people pleasing.
  2. Discover the heart of why we struggle to set boundaries and say no
  3. Learn strategies that will help you start saying no without guilt and shame.

Episode highlights


On People Pleasing


Why We Struggle to Say No


Feeling Shame in Setting Boundaries


How to Start Saying No


Your Value

Episode transcript

Dr. Rachel Morris: Whenever I ask people why they struggle to say no, people will always say to me, “I’m such a people pleaser. It’s dreadful. I know I shouldn’t do it, but I just do.” They blame their inability to say no and they struggle with boundaries on people pleasing. Now, I think there are two myths about people pleasing, number one is that there are some people who are people pleasers and there are some people who aren’t, actually we’re all people pleasers. Because as I’ve talked about a million times, our Amygdalas have kept us safe since we were living in caves and our amygdala detects people being upset with us as an existential threat to our existence. Upsetting someone puts us straight into our stress zone. Actually, we are all people pleasers, it’s our inbuilt wiring of our brains.

The second myth I think about people pleasing, is that we use that as the main reason why we can’t say no to somebody. I often reflect on why I find it really difficult to say no. The other day, I had to cancel a phone call that somebody had booked in. Now, I didn’t know that I’d never spoken to them in my life before and the phone call wasn’t really important. But I felt dreadful when I had to say no to them, I felt really guilty and it didn’t matter one shot, what this person thought about me. The reason I struggled to say no to that is that, I believe very strongly that if you commit to something and say you’re gonna do it, you should do it and that is the nub of the matter, this is the heart of the problem.

You see, people say, “Oh, just say no, it’ll be fine. Just say no.” Even if it doesn’t upset people, we still feel that we can’t say no to things, we can’t set boundaries, because of our own internal thought pattern, Often nothing to do with anybody else. Lots of training on how to say no just focuses on how to say it in a nice way so that we don’t upset anybody else, or how to make sure that we express enough empathy and offer alternatives so that the other person is fine.

Again, two problems with that, number one, we can’t control the other person’s reaction, and nobody really likes to know. We have no ability to control what the other person’s reaction is. The second problem, is that no matter how brilliant we are about empathizing about saying no, we still feel bad ourselves, even if the other person is completely fine about it. People say to me, “I just feel so guilty when I say no to something.” Yes, guilt is that emotion that we feel when our actions cause issues for people and we do feel guilty about a lot of different things.

But you know what, we can handle guilt, we certainly manage to handle the guilt of not being home for our families when we’ve got too much work. Why do we find it so difficult to say no? That’s because when we say no to something, when we’re not able to be as helpful as we’d want to be, when we’re not able to work in the way we think we ought to, when we’re not able to serve somebody or to keep going or to just keep delivering more and more and more. It hits on our own values, our own values of being able to do at all our own values of never letting anybody down our own values of always being the strong one, and helping everybody.

Why did I feel bad about having to cancel that phone call? Well, it hit on my own value of integrity of keeping my word of saying I would do something, and committing to it, it wasn’t so much about upsetting the other person. When we do something that contradicts our own values, then we don’t just feel guilt, we feel shame. We feel that we are not good enough, not just my actions aren’t good enough, but that I am not good enough as a person. We talked about this in the podcast about Shame with Dr. Sandy Miles and that was such an eye opener for me. The fact that Sandy said when she went off sick from work, something she had no control over, she was unwell. But she felt this huge amount of shame because her own identity had been wrapped up in being a doctor. Her own values were that she should always be there, she should never don’t work on colleagues and she should always be able to carry on.

If you take that even further, saying no to something and setting a boundary is even harder, because it’s one thing having to set a boundary when there’s something that’s out of your control has happened and it’s not even your fault. Few months ago, I broke my ankle in ice skating. I had to cancel some stuff, I had no choice, I had a broken ankle.I felt bad, I felt pretty guilty, but I didn’t feel too ashamed because I had this broken ankle, It wasn’t my fault.

But if you are choosing to say no to something, if you are choosing to put a boundary up, and you are choosing not to do something, when actually, you could do it that it becomes almost impossible because you are choosing to do something that directly hits on your own sense of identity, your own sense of who you are and what you should do. Nobody will choose to feel guilt and shame, we will avoid it at all costs. We just say yes, “Okay, I’ll do it, I’ll take that on because I cannot cope with the internal dialogue, I will have If I say no” Those stories that I’ll be telling myself saying, what sort of a doctor are you, you’re just not good enough. You’re not helping, you’re being selfish, all those things that I do not want to be.

It says to me that I am a bad person and I am not enough. I wonder I’ll choose to do something else and this can often be very sort of short term isn’t a problem, because looking back on it, I will think to myself, why didn’t I just say no, that it was obvious, that would be the right thing to do. But at the time, the feelings that I’m getting, just make my Amygdala go mad and say, “You are not safe, you’re not safe If you say no here. You are not safe if you put that boundary there, it means that you are not who you said you are, you are not enough.” All those stories that we’ve been told all our lives of you are only what you do, you are only how hard you work, you only have value if you pass that exam, or you hold that particular position, or you’re working in this particular role.

These stories that just aren’t true, but we have deeply imbibed and are deeply ingrained in our psyche. It is not other people’s reactions that stop us saying no, it’s our own internal stories, our internal thoughts and feelings of guilt and shame. What do we do about it? Well, it’s tricky. There is not one simple solution. But there are lots of different strategies that you can use. Firstly, understand yourself a bit more, understand what are those deeply ingrained stories that you tell yourself, understand that pattern of how your brain is working, sometimes you might need to go see a therapist to do this. Sometimes it can be helpful if you just catch yourself and write down the internal monologue that you’ve got going on.

Ask yourself what is the story in my head right now, understand what your particular triggers and what your particular drivers are. Sometimes personality profiling can be helpful for this, I love the Enneagram. For example, it can tell you what your main motivation is and why you might avoid or go towards certain situations. A bit of self awareness goes a very long way, one very simple thing is to use the pause button. I’ve talked about this before on the Quick Tip episodes. But when you start to feel these feelings of guilt and shame, and by the way, you can tell if you’re thinking that because you’re starting to say to yourself, “I ought, I should.”

Shifting and altering on yourself are indications that you’re starting to tell yourself those internal shaming, guilt inducing stories. When you start to think like that, you just press the pause button, go and do something else, distract yourself, take a breath, take a pause so that you can come back to it in the rational light of day and really examine what the right thing is to do. Then we need to start to change the stories that we have in our head. We need to start to change those core beliefs, those limiting beliefs that tell us that we ought to be self-sacrificing constantly, that we’re superhuman, that we can work without a break, because those are just lies.

We need to understand that it is okay to put a bit of self care in that it’s not just okay. But it’s a professional responsibility to care for yourself well because and I say this pretty much every single podcast episode, you cannot care for other people if your battery is nearly run out. We know that you’re much more likely to get complaints if you’re nearing burnout, because you’re gonna make more errors. A lot of the people that get referred to the GMC, it’s not because they said no to something, it’s because of their behavior when they have been incredibly stressed. It’s just led them to doing things that they look back on and they regret. You cannot care for others unless you are caring for yourself and you need to do that nobody else is going to care for you, nobody else knows exactly what you need. Sometimes we don’t know what we need.

Actually, working out what I need now to replenish my battery to make sure that I am in a fit state to look after other people, well one of the most important questions you can ask yourself, and finally a cover, triangulating with other people saying, “Is this how you feel? Am I right to be feeling this, I’m feeling a bit guilty or ashamed about this.” Just hear other people’s perspectives because my experience is when other people start to hear the story, I’m telling myself in my head about what I should do or about what I ought to do. It just sounds completely crazy and they look at me as if I’m completely mad and think, is that what you’re telling yourself here, Rachel, because it’s so far from the truth to find out what other people are saying yes to what they say no to.

Make a little consortium, make some agreements with people that we are going to have self compassion, we are going to make sure that we do this to look after ourselves that we say no to that to look after ourselves that it is enough to be a human being. Your value is not in what you do or how hard you work or what grades you’ve attained or what position you hold. Your value is that you are a human being and you have worth in this life, you are not just here to serve other people, you are here, and you have value in life even if you couldn’t work just for who you are.

Some of you really, really need to hear that. Because if you deep down believe that, then that’s where you start to have self compassion. You can have empathy and compassion for other people.

When you have to say no, or you can’t do something doesn’t bother you that much because your value and your worth is not tied up with your identity as a doctor or as a professional or as a mother or father or this and that. “Your identity is just in being a human being living this one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver says and if you’re struggling with this, please, please go and get some professional help. It’s really important that we get to the bottom of this because until we start to change those scripts to change those stories, to change our mindset and think differently, we are never going to get over the problem of overwhelming burnouts. It’s at the root of everything.

If you can’t set boundaries and say no, because of the shame stories that we’re telling ourselves, then we’ll end up doing too much, we won’t be able to keep ourselves well, we’ll end up burning out, we’ll end up leaving our jobs anyway, making it worse for everybody else. It contributes to the vicious cycle of burnout and stress and eventually, the whole of the NHS will collapse.

Now, I’m being a little bit dramatic, but you can see how it starts. Whilst guidelines about what is required of us and what’s not required of us and what contractually you should say yes to and what contractually you can say no to will definitely help. A lot of the time we’re trying to solve the wrong problem, we need to solve the problem first of how we think about internal mindset and stories. That’s telling us that you should do this, you ought to do that and you are only worth something in life. If you are able to perform at a 100% capacity all of the time.

Never make a mistake and just be the perfect doctor, nurse, lawyer, insert your occupation in there saying “No starts with your mindset. It starts with your self value, your self worth, you only have one life.” Your responsibility is to live it to the full, so do check out our free Say No toolkit and whilst You are not a Frog podcast is still running we will continue to explore the mindsets this internal stories we’re telling ourselves so that we can be free and so that we can be our best selves which will help us serve other people even better.