No means no: Curing terminal niceness

Too nice for your own good? Learn to be firm and say no

man striking yes boxThere are people who end a discussion by saying, “I couldn’t say no”. They help others by offering their time, money, valuables and energy without fail.

They are those ‘eternally nice people’, who never disappoint anyone or never turn down a request. They keep doing things for others, sometimes even at the cost of their own health, happiness and prosperity.

Pitfalls of being too nice

Yes, you read it right. There are disadvantages of always being good to others. In fact, such behaviour does you more harm than good. It leads to:

Loss of respect: Being a yes-man, will earn you people’s appreciation in the beginning, but soon they will realise that you are good to them not because you like it, but because you cannot say no.

That’s when they start taking advantage of you. They start borrowing things from you and never return them. They start giving you tasks, which makes their own lives easier. They put you into situations that are risky and/or degrading to you for their own benefits.

The irony is that they feel comfortable and confident in doing this to someone who has always been so nice to them. In fact, when you try to oppose, they lash back at you, because they cannot tolerate a sudden conflict from someone who they have been using like a doormat.

Nobody expects a doormat to oppose feet-wiping. And that’s the biggest disadvantage of being a yes-man—you are treated like a puppet and lose respect everywhere, even at home.

Deterioration in relationships: A classic example of this is the lenient parent-demanding child relationship. When parents fulfil all the wishes, needs, and fantasies of their kids without ever saying no, not only do they spoil their kids for good, but they also ruin their relationship with the kids.

Children, who get whatever they want at all times fail to value their parents’ efforts to equilibrate family issues like budget, health, time management, household chores, and liabilities.

In other relationships too, when someone is always giving, offering and helping, others take this as his need to flatter, and they develop a sense of entitlement and a right to appropriate him at will.

Because of this, they keep taking without showing appreciation. Over time, resentment builds in the person for always giving, adjusting, suffering but not receiving applaud. At the same time, others too start losing respect for such a person. This leads to severe failure in relationships.

Invitation to troubles: Imagine a girl who can’t say no to her boyfriend when he tries to get physical with her or a boy who can’t say no to his friends when they want him to try drugs.

This happens in case of adults too, if they aren’t able to turn down a request or offer. This inability lands such people in situations they don’t want to be in. Such situations can sometimes be risky or downright dangerous.

What causes the I-don’t-mind behaviour

Need for acceptance: Children who feel that always being obedient is the only way to be loved and accepted by their parents, grow up into adults with a similar way of pleasing others. The fear of being rejected or outcast could be so strong in their subconscious that they go to any extent to be in the good books of others.

Need to compensate for lack: Someone may become a reliable, 24×7 benevolent person as a compensatory measure for a missed duty or bad deed. For instance, a you-ask-it-you-get-it parent may be compensating for his own deprived childhood. Another such parent could be doing it for compensating for not spending enough time.

Reluctance to deprive others: No is a simple word but may mean different things to different people. For some, saying no might mean depriving the needy. For others it might mean showing arrogance.

Saying no to someone could also mean defiance, especially if you hold the person who’s asking the favour in high regard. These different meanings find their roots from childhood experiences with parents.

For example, if an older sibling is made to feel that he is depriving the younger child by declining his requests, the older sibling may grow into an adult who feels turning down requests means depriving people.

Low self-esteem: Some become yes-men in an attempt to replenish their depleted self-respect. Sacrifices fuel their ego. Such individuals assume that people respect them and depend on them because of their benevolence. Being good to others gives them a feeling of ‘oh-I-am-so-good’; they derive a narcissistic boost from the act.

Inability to handle a conflict: Some people would do anything to avoid a conflict, real or imaginary, with self or others. Poor problem solving skills lead to taking painful detours from the problem. So when others approach such individuals with a request, they readily agree to it, avoiding further discussions.

How to say no

People with yes-personalities have cocooned themselves in a shell of ‘being nice’. They need to understand that this tendency is jeopardising their wellbeing. The first step towards breaking that shell is to analyse the hidden reason behind being ‘eternally nice’.

You need to know why you are unable to turn down a request. Getting to the reason makes it easier to unlearn the ‘yes, yes’ behaviour and acquire the ability to turn down a request politely, but firmly. You need to:

  • Understand that childhood ways with parents cannot be generalised in the adult world. As grownups we need to deal with the world in a different manner altogether.
  • Acknowledge that you aren’t doing it out of love and affection. And accept that you are doing it for another reason which could, in fact, be depleting love and affection between you and others.
  • Realise that saying yes always is not equal to niceness/ benevolence. It’s a sign of weakness, not strength.
  • Know that turning down a request doesn’t mean being bad and rude or depriving others.
  • Hold on to your self-worth firmly. The criticism and manipulation of others shouldn’t shatter it easily. Fulfilling a request will not increase any love and respect people have for you. Likewise, turning it down won’t decrease the love. Being nice to feel good about your self does not provide a healthy dose of self-respect either.
  • Open your eyes to how others see your eternal niceness. They may call it bootlicking, flattery and toadyism or view you as a doormat.

This was first published in the November 2010 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Aanchal Agrawal
Aanchal Agrawal is a mother, a psychotherapist, and a special educator. She is a gold medallist in psychology from Benaras Hindu University. She is interested in removing taboos regarding mental illness and aims to spread awareness about child development.


  1. Hey, this is a really great article Aanchal. It is definitely gonna help me too…
    Also a life saver for the genuinely nice people…:-)


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