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Why Women Feel Guilty Saying No, and How To Change That

We have all had a hard time saying no at some point. Maybe it was a friend that asked a favor that you were uncomfortable with, a lover or partner pushing a boundary that you set, or no to a date that you were not interested in. 


As women, we learn at a young age that the role of relationships in our lives supersede the importance of overall success, the capacity to win a game, and sometimes even identity. Intimacy is displayed as a priority over identity. In the fairy tales that we are read as little girls, we hear of the princess who awaken from their slumber in order to marry the prince, not to fight evil or take over the world. Carol Gilligan in the feminist manifesto “In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development” discusses how women go as far to feel a fear of success. She states that having success and being assertive over men produces an “anticipation of certain negative consequences such as the threat of social rejection and loss of femininity”.  She continues to explain that a woman’s success anxiety increases when it is at the expense of another person’s failure. It has even been observed that on a playground, little boys will play to win. Quitting the game is never encouraged, even if someone gets their feelings hurt. The boys tend to play games that are often team oriented and competitive in nature. Little girls are often playing games with less competitive stakes, and often quit before the game has come to completion. Looking at these cultural and developmental factors, it is no wonder that women have a hard time standing their ground and stating a firm “No!” when needed.


Because masculine values tend to prevail culturally, women are often left to question their opinion. When being questioned about a moral dilemma, a woman is more likely to second guess her response when asked if she was sure that was the response that she wanted to give, while men are more likely to stand by their answer.


To give a positive perspective, this questioning and emphasis on relationships and intimacy emphasize the importance of a woman’s view of morality. But, saying no and being assertive can be looked at as a moral choice.


Saying no is a way to take care of yourself, to set boundaries, and to assert yourself. Whether it is at the workplace, with your family, or in bed, here are a few pointers on how to overcome the guilt in saying no.


  1. Ask for more information to know what the facts are.
  2. Practice saying no. It may feel awkward at first, but the repetition will take the fear out of the word. Practice saying it in front of a mirror. Try saying it at low stakes situations such as when ordering a coffee, or about less meaningful topics while chatting with friends.
  3. Consider is the request is reasonable.
  4. Stop apologizing. If the task is something that you can not or do not want to do, say no, instead of saying, “I’m sorry, but…”


It doesn’t end with learning to say no. Let’s play the devils advocate and consider the consequences in saying yes.


  1. Does saying yes get in the way or distract you from what you want to do?
  2. Will you end up angry at yourself for saying yes?
  3. Will resentment develop and build up?
  4. Will engaging in this activity cause you to have a lack of communication or dishonest communication?


As a woman, you have a responsibility to yourself, and you can also model this behavior of being assertive and saying no to other women in your life.




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