“Can you volunteer for this school event? We really need volunteers?” You begrudgingly answer, “Yes.”
“Hey, can you pick up my dry cleaning? I’m running late.” Through gritted teeth, “Yes.”
“Can you come and help me set up for this party?” “Yes.”
“Mom, can you make this cake? I saw it on Instagram, and every one of my friends’ moms has made one already.” Almost through tears, “Yes.”
Does any of that sound like you? If it does, you are not alone. Countless moms, just like you, struggle to say “no” to things they don’t want to do. And that leaves them exhausted, frazzled, burnt out, angry, and depleted. But there is hope. We want to help you stop saying “yes” when you mean “no,” and help you learn how to say “yes” authentically. Because when you say “no” to someone else, you ultimately say “yes” to yourself and your needs.
But first, let’s back up a bit and understand why we (moms and women in general) feel this overwhelming need to say “yes,” when we really want (and sometimes need) to say “no.”
Why Do Moms Say “Yes” When They Want to Say “No”?
The main reason women, especially moms, say “yes” instead of “no” is socialization.1 But there is a bit of biology mixed in as well. Humans are social primates, and our safety is predicated upon being a part of a strong social system. To be accepted into this social system, we need to be agreeable and likable so we are not cast out. That is why being “the good girl” becomes essential for many women.
This is further complicated by the fact that women appear to have stronger empathy than men and are thus significantly more attuned to the feelings of others.2 When we are more attuned to others’ feelings, it is more difficult to tolerate their disappointment. So, saying “yes” feels easier.
Avoid Punishment/Win Approval
This need to appease and be of service doesn’t just come from the greater society. It comes from your family or origin as well. If you were raised in a household that practiced authoritarian parenting, you were expected to obey and were punished for any disagreement. As an adult, you may still feel the need to continue acting agreeably to avoid punishment.
Or maybe your parents were inconsistent in their parenting, and you never knew what to expect. You may have adopted being agreeable to win your parents’ love since you never knew what would earn their approval. If you were raised by neglectful parents who seldomly gave you the time of day, becoming a people pleaser may have been your attempt at getting their love and acceptance.
On the more extreme side, saying “yes” is also a fawn response.3 It is the fourth type of trauma response: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. A fawn response immediately tries to please the other person to avoid conflict. It often occurs with people who come from abusive situations during their childhood. The childhood abuse could have been sexual abuse, physical, or emotional (verbal).
This learned pattern of behavior later transfers into adult relationships. It often shows up in motherhood as giving in to your child’s tantrums and demands to make the screaming stop, agreeing to your partner’s demands, even if you disagree with them, and doing everything to keep the peace between everyone in the family.
Of course, there are other reasons we say “yes” besides just wanting to be likable or having a trauma response. We (moms) are socialized to prove we can do it all. This usually translates into taking on extra projects at work that we don’t have the bandwidth for, caring for the whole household as if we are the only ones living there, and showing up for our kids regardless of how we feel. In our heads, if we do anything less than that, it means we’re failing at motherhood. And no one wants to be failing at motherhood!
And how about some good old FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)? I bet this fear has been driving you for a while but has also taken on a new life once you become a mom.
If before your FOMO centered on you (if I don’t go out tonight, I’m going to miss something amazing), now your FOMO is centered on your child as well (if I don’t enroll them in this 15th activity, they will surely never go to college, and will still live in my basement at the age of 35). And so you begrudgingly say “yes” when you really mean “no” because you are afraid for your child’s future.
This FOMO especially kicks in when you hear other moms bragging about all the activities their children are enrolled in. You might feel like you are not keeping up and failing your child. So, you say “yes” to yet another activity that isn’t needed for your child and adds more chaos to your life.
What’s The Real Cost of Saying “Yes” When You Mean “No”
Now that you know why you may be saying “yes” instead of “no,” let’s discuss why this is a big deal.
It might seem as if saying “yes” is harmless, but that is not true. When you say “yes” to something, you inadvertently say “no” to something else. When your “yes” comes from a people-pleasing or keeping-the-peace place, you are saying, first and foremost, “no” to yourself and your needs. And in the long run, it can lead to burnout, resentment, anger, disappointment, anxiety, and depression.
You might think that by saying “yes,” you are avoiding hurting someone’s feelings and doing something good. But if saying “yes” brings resentment and anger, you do more harm than good. It’s inauthentic and insincere. What’s worse is saying “yes” at first, only to say “no” at the last minute. Not only does this have social repercussions of being considered unreliable, but it can also put you in a deep guilt spiral.
Imagine saying “yes” to your child when you don’t want to do whatever they’re asking. You may think you’re avoiding a tantrum and thus keeping the peace. In reality, you may be teaching your child that you have no boundaries and they don’t have to respect your needs. Or you will be doing an activity with them begrudgingly, and they will feel it and not know why mom is unhappy with them. That is a significant emotional burden for a child to carry.
The most important thing to remember is that when we don’t say “yes” authentically, we say “yes” resentfully!
Learning to Say “No” When You Mean “No”
As you can see, saying “yes” when you mean “no” is a common problem for moms. We want to make sure everyone is happy and has their needs met. It has a biological drive because we want to take care of our children. But most of this need comes from socialization. And that means you can unlearn how to be a people pleaser and learn to live authentically.
Assess where your need for people-pleasing comes from.
As I mentioned, your people-pleasing ways could have come from being parented in a way that required you to be agreeable to feel safe and loved. The wounds from that experience can run deep. So, to heal, you may need to work with a coach or a mental health counselor. They can help you understand where your need to please comes from and how to change that so you can take care of yourself.
Tell yourself that you and your needs are important.
Moms are notorious for putting themselves last, mainly because they feel the need to serve everyone around them. Let’s put an end to this practice! I am permitting you to put yourself first! You matter! Your needs matter! Your needs come first! Write this on a sticky note and put it on every mirror in the house. Remind yourself often that you matter, and you will start believing that.
Learn to set boundaries.
When you realize you are important, you will want to set boundaries to protect your needs. Sit down and write a list of things that are non-negotiable for you. When you have the list down, share it with your loved ones. They need to know what your boundaries are to respect them. Having a list of non-negotiables makes it easier to say “no” to things that don’t prioritize your needs.
Check in with yourself to find out why you feel the need to say “yes.”
Next time you are asked something, check in with yourself before answering. If you feel inclined to say “yes” to spare someone’s feelings or out of guilt, refrain. Only say “yes” when you feel genuine about it. Remember that when you say “yes” to something you don’t want to do, you are potentially saying “no” to something you actually want to do. Time is precious, so spend it saying “yes” only to things that matter.
You have the right to say “no.”
When doubt starts creeping in about saying “no,” just remember that it is your right, not a privilege. You, just like everyone else around you, have the right to refuse to do things you don’t want to do. You are not put on this earth to serve anyone. If you provide service to those you love, do it because you want to, not out of obligation. Learning to say “no” allows you that freedom.
Remember that the number one reason moms need to learn to say “no” is because it makes them happier, healthier, and more present. And isn’t that the most important goal to strive for in motherhood?