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The Science Behind Your Difficulty Saying ‘No’

"Why do I keep doing this to myself?"

"Why can't I just say 'no'?"

You didn't want to disappoint your boss, so you said yes to the last minute report.

You were worried your spouse would feel neglected, so you stayed up late watching tv together.

You didn't want to let down your coworkers, so you agreed to organize the office potluck.

You felt guilty not answering your mother's phone call two days in a row, so you talked with her for an hour instead of going to yoga.


You're exhausted, overwhelmed, and frazzled.
You have zero energy, no patience and the stress of it all is making you sick...

But most of all, you're angry with yourself.

You feel you have no one else to blame; you're the one that kept saying 'yes' to everything; you're the one with poor boundaries.



Stop kicking yourself for not being able to say 'no'.

It's not something you are consciously choosing; your inability to say "no" goes deeper than simply selecting a different response.

An overlooked and underestimated factor, rarely taken into account, relates to how much our bodies silence us physiologically.

We think of 'saying no' as a conscious verbal choice but there's more to it than that.

There's a non-conscious, physiological component that operates beyond the realm of your awareness; experiences whereby you wired to continue saying 'yes'.

These learned experiences are stored in one's body and act as extremely powerful levers dictating one's behaviours.


From birth onward, your brain grows in response to your social life and begins to form memories about relations between events.

Associative learning is one of the fundamental ways your nervous system classifies your experiences, particularly those involving reward-punishment and pain-pleasure.

Over time, a catalog of information is built that categorizes situations as either threatening or safe.

Experiences that your nervous system registered as potentially dangerous or harmful would have been retained especially strongly; they would have been encoded as part of your non-conscious information processing circuits, and impacted the way you felt, thought, and behaved.

Some of these defensive survival circuits would have wired to be sensitive to moods and facial expressions, and to guess and gauge the viewpoints of others.

Since children need adults to survive, your need to bond, get along, and co-exist with them meant that ultimately, you could not afford to lose favour with, or 'displease' your parents, guardians or teachers.

Any behaviour that threatened this attachment with the adults in your life, would have been registered as a potential harm to your well-being and detected as danger.

If your brain associated: 'disappointing others = painful consequences', it may have wired to automatically suppress your natural emotional reactions, and inhibit any self-assertiveness and aggression.

Neural pathways shaped by:

  • Pain/pleasure
  • Reward/punishment
  • Culture
  • Need for attachment (to parents/adults for survival)
  • Personal history – family, school, religion, etc.

Core Beliefs formed:

  • Can't disappoint
  • Responsible for others' feelings
  • Easier to get along if agreeable, pleasant, 'good'
  • Keep ideas to self
  • 'Negative' emotions are 'bad'; not acceptable = my true self is not acceptable
  • Rewarded for 'achieving', silence, compliance, being low-fuss

Wired to:

  • Inhibit authentic expression
  • Anticipate (and meet) others' needs
  • Be responsible
  • Work hard, achieve, see things through
  • Please, agree, be an asset
  • Be 'obedient' above all else
  • Tolerate contradictions
  • Shoulder others' anxieties
  • Ask no questions
  • Roll with the punches
  • Push no matter what


These long-term memories and defensive survival circuits not only reflect your past but are also the foundation for predictions about your future self.

They compile the abstract concepts your nervous system uses to weigh your choices with potential consequences to anticipated future situations.

Through processes such as pattern recognition and pattern completion, you are able to interpret present situations and react accordingly.

It's why a look of anger or disappointment becomes a crippling anxiety that keeps you trapped in self-sacrificing and people-pleasing behaviours.

This anxiety is more of an expectation than a fact which represents a possible, yet unpredictable, threat.

Your learned associations have also formed your CORE BELIEFS; beliefs that appraise your current scenarios and that are carried out reflexively by non-conscious processes.

All of this precipitates a tug of war between your brain and body every time you are faced with choosing 'self' over others.

Unconsciously, you have learned to associate saying 'yes' and agreeing with a temporary reduction in anxiety; this reduced anxiety brings about relief (and temporary sense of security), and relief is a powerful reinforcer of 'yes' behaviour.

One thing I would like to make clear: the fact that conscious decisions do not fully account for your reactions, does not mean that conscious thought plays no role in your behaviour.

It simply means that underlying biological processes also play an important role, and conscious choice should not be assumed to account entirely for one’s response.

Which brings me to the original reason for writing this article: to encourage you to stop bashing yourself for not being able to say 'no'.

Now that you understand how strongly your biology affects your choices, and that your people-pleasing tendencies are not your fault, please be kind to yourself.

I say this from personal experience, because it's what I've done most of my life, and the only time I was able to begin changing on a physiological level was when I began treating myself with immense compassion.

It's also why I created a unique community for 'over-givers' wanting to CHANGE and REWIRE their people-pleasing behaviours; a safe, supportive space where I teach you not only how to comfortably say 'no', but also how to treat yourself with the kindness and compassion you deserve.

Recognize that asking your conscious mind to override deeply woven protective circuits is HARD.

You are already experiencing enough stress and strain as it is, the last thing you need - or that's helpful - is shame, blame and self-flagellation.

If you're still not convinced, or would like further proof, watch this great TED Talk in which a cardiologist explores the ways our emotions impact the health and size of our hearts.

Our emotions, and the psychosocial aspects of our lives, are literally intertwined with our physical bodies and affect our behaviours and well-being far more deeply than we realize.

I hope understanding some of the science behind your own neural complexity will help you consider giving compassionate attention to that part of you that has difficulty saying 'no'.

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Science-based knowledge combined with mindfulness-based practices that we do together, help you rewire and learn the skills you need to change your people-pleasing ways and build healthier, more balanced relationships - at work, home and social circles.