Picture yourself in the following situations:
* Your boss wants you to stay late on Friday—your long-planned date night.
* Your parents are pressuring you to fly home for a distant relative's wedding, but the thought of it (flights! an expensive gift!) is making your blood pressure skyrocket.
* A friend asks you to watch her kids (again), which means you won't get your errands done.
Now what: Do you say yes and be a model employee/daughter/friend? Or do you draw the line and do what's best for you instead? If you're someone who occasionally finds it hard to do the latter, well, join the club.
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Saying no these days is especially hard. At work, our responsibilities are ever-expanding (thanks, never-ending recession), and at home, we feel pressed to help stretched-thin friends and family. "In this age of constant electronic connectedness, requests are coming at us every waking hour, making it even more important to be able to put your foot down," says Roni Cohen-Sandler, a clinical psychologist in Weston, Conn. Most of us—no matter how together we are—could use help with saying nay.
Of course, knowing when to say yes is also important. In a 2012 survey of employers by the job placement firm OI Partners, being a team player—as in, flexible and helpful—was the top-valued quality in an employee. This applies outside the office, too. A 2011 study found that couples who reported a high level of generosity in their relationship were five times more likely to say their marriage was very happy. And sometimes just saying yes is the easiest way out (see: placating a demanding mother-in-law).
But it's not all sacrifice. Other research finds that when we do things for other people, our brains light up in areas associated with pleasure and reward. Given this, it's not always easy to know when a firm no is in order. Where does nice end and doormat begin?
The most obvious sign you're too accommodating: Saying yes makes you feel bad. In fact, a 2010 review of research suggests that women who showed high people-pleasing tendencies (psychologists call it sociotropy) were more likely to feel stress and depression.
It stands to reason: "Saying yes all the time can really zap your mood; it can also make you feel resentful and over-committed," says Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
Women may have a harder time saying no, psychologists and sociologists theorize, because of the way we're raised to value connections. "Even if you are a very successful person, you're not going to feel great unless your relationships are harmonious," Cohen-Sandler says. "And in our culture, women get the message that saying no is tantamount to being difficult, so we're often not able to say no unless we're at the end of our rope."
Bowing out will pay off, notes Rego: "Putting your foot down more often lowers stress and improves your confidence and well-being." Follow these simple guidelines to knowing when, and how, to make the most of this sanity-saving two-letter word.
Read your body
It's natural to want to be generous and "give up your own needs to meet someone else's," says Linda Tillman, a psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta. To know if you've crossed that fine line from kind to compulsive people-pleaser, pay attention to how you feel—in the moment and later.
"If you say yes and then find yourself feeling resentful or irritated at yourself or the other person, then you know that you were doing it not out of generosity but because you felt you had to," Tillman says. Other red flags that you're being overly accommodating: Right after saying yes, you feel your stomach drop or your heart race, or you get anxious and wonder how you'll ever get it done.
Avoid a quick 'yes' you don't mean
If you feel a potential marshmallow moment coming on, stop, take a breath, and ask yourself these questions, from Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of The Book of No. Do I have time for this? Will I feel upset? Will I feel like a sucker? What do I get out of it? If you can't answer the above right away, say: "I'll need to get back to you on that."
Develop your ix-nay muscles
"Saying no is a learned skill that anyone can develop," Newman says. To quash requests, even when the prospect makes you uncomfortable:
1. Be enthusiastic. Reassuring the other person about the opportunity you're turning down is one way to soften a rejection, Rego says. Try something like, "It sounds so fun; I would love a rain check!"
2. Skip the excuses. As tempting as it is to get into the many reasons why you can't attend your co-worker's birthday drinks, offering a simple, "Sorry, I can't make it!" is a better move. Overexplaining opens up the possibility of working around your unavailability, Newman says.
3. Show empathy. Tillman recommends something along these lines: "I know you were really hoping to have all your friends around for your baby shower, so I'm even more sorry I can't go."
4. Start with the no part. If you know you might waver when you see disappointment or surprise on the other person's face, it can be very empowering to lead with the no, says Tillman. Try: "No, I won't be able to be the PTA treasurer next year; I'm sorry." You've taken a stand, which can help you stick to your guns.
There, that felt pretty good, right? Now you can get on with your own life!