How to Start Saying No When You’re Afraid of Disapproval


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“Sometimes what you’re most afraid of doing is the very thing that will set you free.” ~Robert Tew

When I say that my need for people to like me has been one of the hidden rulers of my life, I’m not kidding!

Ever since I was a kid, I wanted everyone to like me, and I had significant anxiety if they didn’t. My fear of the disapproval of others quietly lurked beneath the surface like a shadow under my skin, dictating my behavior and my mood.

I was so afraid of the disapproval of others that I would ruminate over inconsequential things I had said to people and tiny actions I had taken, trying to determine if they might have been received in ways that could have ignited disappointment or rejection.

Nowadays, when I think back to that version of me, with the need for people to like me running my life, I feel a wave of compassion.

It was that version of me who decided to go through with a marriage I knew was not right for me because I was afraid people would be disappointed or disapproving if I decided to back out of my engagement.

It was that version of me who vulnerably disappeared from friendships when I felt judged because I would rather fade into the distance than meet that experience with curiosity and presence.

It was that version of me who was afraid of saying no to work commitments because I put other people’s needs ahead of my own.

It was that version of me who would overcommit to meet other people’s requests and then have to anxiously backpedal because I could not possibly manage my own over-scheduling.

That version of me was on the fast track to complete depletion, exhaustion, frayed nerves, and burnout.

The time came when I had to meet the shadow within me that was so frightened to displease others because I had lost sight of what truly mattered most: my own inner compass.

My closest family members shared that they didn’t even recognize me anymore.

Sometimes when we reach the depths of our inner darkness—when the shadow of our fears overtakes the light of our spirit—we can experience the richest and most transformational turning points of our lives. For me, this certainly was the case.

Through a cascade of serendipitous events, I began to face my own fear-based shadow. I participated in an intensive gestalt therapy group that helped me rediscover what it was like to feel grounded in my body and belong to a community at the same time. I reconnected with nature and started taking regular walks, taking my shoes off and feeling the earth beneath my feet, and going camping. I reconnected with music and dancing. I rejoined the aliveness within me.

I learned the gift of my “no.” I learned the gift of feeling the strength of my spine and the tenderness of my heart as I voiced my boundaries, my limits, and the clear truth of my honorable “no.”

The gift of giving myself permission to say “no” set me free. I realized that in saying “no” I was offering other people the greatest gift I could offer them, which was my honesty and integrity. If people felt disapproval or disappointment in response to my boundary, I realized that I could have compassion for their struggle without assuming responsibility for it.

Another surprising aspect of giving myself permission to voice my “no” was that this also offered me a new perspective on other people’s limits and boundaries.

Nowadays, when someone answers my requests with a limit or boundary, I recognize the beauty in their response. Even if I feel a little disappointment that they cannot connect with me in that moment in the ways that I am seeking, I feel even more honored that they trust me to hear and respect their boundary. Experiencing other people’s limits in this way has been unexpectedly freeing as well.

Embracing the gift of “no” has also offered me the real possibility of “yes.” My yes rings more clearly, like a beautiful bell. Because I am honoring the truth of my limits, my experience of my openness with my “yes” is so much more filled with aliveness and presence. When I feel my “yes,” I feel the integrity, clarity, and joy of that opening because my limits have been honored within me.

Have I had to face the reality that not everyone likes me? You bet. It hasn’t been easy, either. I find it amusing to reflect on my earlier self, though, and recognize that not everyone liked me then either.

I have been astonished to learn that the gift of my “no” has allowed me to connect more deeply with people who do enjoy my company and celebrate our relationships because I’m showing up more authentically as myself.

Even though the fear of disapproval and disappointment had such a tremendous impact on my life for so many years, I don’t regret this journey. It has not been easy, and it has required a great deal of courage to face my fears, but I feel gratitude to my shadow for offering me such a valuable lesson.

In the end, it was my fear of people not liking me that ultimately led me on the path to growing into more fully liking and accepting myself. It was the darkness of that shadow that became my catalyst to the brilliant and blazing light of aliveness.

Every once in a while, the fear shadow shows up again. Today, though, I can greet that fear as a familiar old friend, reminding me that I’m absolutely, imperfectly human. As I greet my fear, I notice the contrast that nowadays I have the courage to feel my feet on the ground and my belonging within myself.

The fear simply doesn’t hold the same power over me anymore. I can still choose to feel my strong spine and tender heart, and act from my own truth.

If I can offer any little pearls of wisdom from my own journey, I would offer these.

Invite your fear to be your ally.

If you can invite your fear to be your ally by getting curious to learn more about what it might be trying to protect you from, you then can ask yourself if there is another way you might protect yourself.

In my case, my fear was trying to protect me from disappointing others, and truly I needed to protect myself by offering myself the space to practice saying my “no.”

Start small because small is significant!

By starting with smaller steps rather than bigger steps, we can gradually practice a new habit or way of being with lower stakes at first. This practice is very important because as you gain your footing and balance with the small steps toward setting limits and boundaries, you can work your way to setting the bigger limits you need.

In my case, I started by engaging in activities I loved, such as going for a walk outside, even if some of my family members would have preferred that I engaged in what they wanted to do in that moment instead.

Remember to breathe.

Sometimes when we are facing our fears—no matter how small—we can tense up and constrict our bodies without even realizing it, which heightens the sensations of fear and anxiety within us. Gently remind yourself to take some deep breaths and see if you can ease tension in your body.

Sometimes life has such beautiful twists. Had anybody ever told me years ago that I would be sitting at my kitchen table, writing and reflecting on the gift of my “no,” I wouldn’t have even understood what they were talking about. Of course not; my fear shadow hadn’t led me to this wisdom yet.

I’m so thankful it did.

About Elizabeth Mintun

Elizabeth Mintun is a mindful coach and psychotherapist. She is the creator and host of The Calming Ground podcast. Elizabeth has a psychotherapy private practice and mindful life coaching practice. She also runs an online self-care membership for women called The Calming Ground. For a free guided meditation, click here. You can also follow The Calming Ground on Facebook and Instagram.

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