In a room full of women, if the question were to be asked how many of you have difficulty saying no, my assumption is that that majority of hands would raise. As a mental health practitioner, it has been my experience that females tend to struggle with asserting “no” in relationships per their own reports. Females seem to know this is a problem but have great difficulty knowing how to effectively solve it. As someone who gives females a tremendous amount of credit for being smart and resourceful, this area of setting boundaries by saying “no” seems to rattle them.

In my clinical practice, female clients (girls and women across a wide span of ages) may initially present in therapy for symptoms of anxiety, but through further exploration, this phenomenon of struggling to set effective boundaries is at the core of their worry. Saying “no” is an important form of setting boundaries, foundational in fact. Establishing boundaries is necessary for keeping ourselves safe and healthy. It is also an important way of living out our values.

Setting this boundary seems to come from an empowered place, which females have historically not had due to socio-cultural constraints. Now that a shift is occurring (these sort of shifts take decades, sometimes generations), girls are witnessing their mothers practice the art of setting boundaries.

The process of saying “no” is complex. Here I attempt to break it down into three steps. By “no” I am also referring to declining an invitation and not engaging in an activity that does not interest or appeal to you.

Step 1: A “no” decision is made

The woman internally realizes that she wants to draw a boundary and not participate or proceed. She is tuning in to her feelings. This may be a complex time for the woman as her instincts or desires are leaning her toward “no”, but social pressure or other forces are pushing her toward “yes”. If she acquiesces to “yes” when a mismatch like this one occurs, she will likely proceed with resentment. Built up over time, this resentment pile-up can have a negative impact on mental health, relationships, and overall sense of self and self-esteem.

Step 2: Action is taken

Avoidance (inaction is also action in this case) occurs and she does not participate OR she actively communicates that she does not want to continue or participate. This is the step that raises the most anxiety. In fact, often this becomes so uncomfortable for the female that she changes her mind from her original decision and goes along with something that she internally did not want to do.

Step 3: Follow-through

The aftermath of saying “no” can include feelings of guilt. By sticking with a decision to decline or reject, a man is at risk for falling into negative and faulty thinking patterns. She may mistakenly assume that she has angered someone important to her. Alternatively, she may believe that others will see her as a “bitch” or another derogatory term typically assigned to assertive women. The most mentally healthy steps that a female can take is to consider how true and respectful she has been to her preferences. After all, she listened to her voice and stood up for herself! Self-soothing is a process that takes practice. The intense feelings of discomfort will minimize with time (literally minutes).

Exploration of this phenomenon deserves some attention. A feminist perspective would highlight the long-standing gender role of women sacrificing for others. In essence, she does not stand up for herself or set a firm boundary out of a responsibility to make others happy or care for those around her. Further, this pleasing behavior may also stem from not wanting to disappoint. Certainly, there is a generational transmission in families whereby girls learn that it is their role to go along with plans, invitations, or ideas, even if they would rather not. Whatever the reason, it is time to challenge the status quo and move toward a more assertive stance. Seeking out role models who say “no” with ease is useful for those females in training. Additionally, a therapist can really help to sort through a female’s specific experiences that hinder engaging in consistent assertiveness.

If you need help on practicing saying no, then connect with Perspectives Therapy Services.

Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.