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“Just Say No”: If Only Boundary-Setting Was That Easy

Sometimes it’s easier to say yes than it is to say no. Nobody likes to feel mean, just as nobody likes to disappoint. When women are faced with the choice to either please themselves or feel guilty for not pleasing others, “no” can feel like a double-edged sword. 

“Just Say No” is more complicated than it seems. The slogan, once-popularized by Nancy Reagan for fighting the drug war, has crept its way into sexual assault awareness. Even today, society pressures women to be “nice” and polite, making assertiveness more difficult. If women refuse to say no and instead, go along with whatever is suggested, despite their actual feelings, the repercussions can be major.

Some of the mental health consequences for women who don’t say ‘no’ when they want to:

  • Self esteem. If a woman cannot defend herself or take care of her own needs and boundaries, her sense of worth declines. The more often she goes against her true feelings, the more power others have to take advantage of her. If others can take advantage of her, their respect for her may diminish as well, perpetuating the cycle of low esteem.
  • Anxiety. When women deny their wishes to say no, they are straight-jacketed into whatever others want. This gives them very little choice in how future events may play out. Some people choose to avoid social events because of the possibility they may be pressured into doing something they feel uncomfortable rejecting. Others may drink more alcohol to feel okay with saying yes to something they may not truly want.
  • Anger. Along with anxiety, anger can boil in the background. Although the word ‘no’ may not have been used, the feelings of violation are still there. They, too, are usually not voiced. 
  • Expecting others to mind-read. If saying “no” is too difficult, some may find silent ways to communicate in hopes that others will pick up the hint. This can work in certain, but not all situations. And although the social repercussions for a woman may seem less, saying no without really speaking the word no has its problems too. Ultimately, since no isn’t specifically said, the interpretation is never as strong as the actual word. By finding excuses or avoiding no, the person who is reluctant to reject may also become hyper aware of her surroundings as she constantly looks for others who prefer to deal with conflict indirectly.
  • Guilt. Although avoiding the word no does not mean yes, many people who cannot set firm boundaries feel responsible for a host of outcomes that may or may not have been avoidable. This can lead to confusion, low self worth, and depression.

Saying no can seem like a harsh response, especially if the person on the receiving end is a friend or someone who has been nice and mild-mannered. Just because someone says no it does not mean the other person has necessarily done something wrong. It only means it’s not right for the person asserting themselves. If no is something you struggle to say, here are some examples of responses that definitely do not mean yes.

    “Let me think about it.”
    “That sounds interesting. I’ll let you know if I decide to do that.”
    “I’m going to do … tonight, but I hope you have a good time.”
    “This was fun, but now I need to get going.”
    “I’m happy with the way things are now.”
    “Let’s find another way.”
    “I don’t want to take on that kind of commitment right now.”
The ability to say no and set specific boundaries often takes practice. It may be difficult to firmly state what is wanted if the need to feel good about one’s self is tied to cultural expectations surrounding passivity. Being assertive is a skill that is built up slowly over time. If it feels mean or cruel to say no, it may be helpful to remember that self respect serves not just you, but others who look to you for guidance. If you can’t do it for yourself in the beginning, do it for someone else.

“Just Say No”: If Only Boundary-Setting Was That Easy

Rebecca Lee

Rebecca Lee lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She has published with: Harvard, Adbusters, The Virginian Pilot etc. Her book, Object Relations, is due for publication in July.

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APA Reference
Lee, R. (2018). “Just Say No”: If Only Boundary-Setting Was That Easy. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 14 Jan 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.