How Does Our Childhood Affect our Ability to Say No?

How Does Our Childhood Affect our Ability to Say No?

26 September 2014

We all have trouble saying “no” every now and again – do you think there’s a reason why we find it so hard?


This has just got to be one of the first words we all learn as infants!

Mum: “Susie, sit up at the table!”

Susie: “No!”

‘No’ seems to be so easy when we are young, like a reflex reaction. But as we get older, we learn that it is not polite or even right, to say no all the time. There are consequences to saying no; our parents, family members, teachers or friends might become upset with us. We may have been punished for saying no, and some people might even abandon us. Perhaps none of these scenarios occurred for you, however you learnt by observation that it didn’t pay to say no. Being a ‘good’ girl or boy seemed the far safer, easier and more peaceful option to take.

Our childhood experiences teach us how to behave in relationship towards others, and how best to have our own needs met. Even as we grow into adulthood, it is typical that we continue to relate to people according to the ‘template’ we formed as a child. For example, it may be that as a little girl your father was frequently irritable and easily angered. You may have adapted to this by doing everything he asked in order to please him which in turn would keep the household settled. Consequently, you find it difficult to say no to males for fear that they will be angry.

Or perhaps as a child, your mother was always depressed and often teary. You learned to say yes when you meant no because your mum would cry if you didn’t do what she wanted. This then produced guilt and distress for you.

Fear, rejection, abandonment and sadness are all strong motivators for saying yes when we need to say no. Unfortunately, the cost is the loss of your own identity. Knowing who we are, what we need and how to communicate that need to feel happy and safe in relationships is lost to us. This is because we have not been taught or modelled how to truly know, respect and care for ourselves.

Learning to say no is a lesson in learning to value and respect ourselves. Being able to say no and mean it is truly empowering – it is declaring a strong yes to who we are and what we need to be healthy, happy and secure in the world.

So get out your ‘inner’ toddler voice, and start practicing saying no in front of your mirror. Never be apologetic for taking care of yourself. After all, if you fail to respect and value yourself, it is likely that others will do the same. Don’t over-explain or defend your decision as it invariably invites others to challenge your decision. And when they do, remember it’s not your problem anymore.

Being able to identify your needs and be an advocate for them is absolutely essential to our health and wellbeing. Where a person fails to learn this skill in younger years, self- confidence disappears, unhappiness and feelings of stress and anxiety increases, and the physical body becomes unwell in response. Learning to say no is a life skill not to be minimised. Taking the time to start practicing it today; it is an investment not just for the present, but also for your future health.

This article was originally published on

Share this article

Like us on Facebook

Get in touch with Colleen