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Why do we say yes when we really mean no?

Stephen Covey, in his book The 8th Habit, says “the first and most demanding form of personal growth takes place in the family.”   Since embarking on the journey of motherhood a little over two years ago, I completely agree with his assessment.

Becoming a mother has challenged me to grow and see myself in ways I never have before. It has required an honesty about who I am and how to best care for myself that has produced some of the best fruits in my life.  But they also have been some of my hardest lessons.

In my own life, and in the lives of many other mothers, I have the tendency to say yes to too many things.   We have difficulties with boundaries, especially with giving our time and effort. We have a hard time communicating the word “no.”  And we spend our days exhausted and stretched thin.

Why do we say yes when we really mean no?

I am not a psychotherapist, just a holistic health counselor who has observed a handful of reasons why I (and others) are in an unhealthy place because we have a hard time knowing when and how to say no. Here are four common reasons I’ve come across in my own life.

1.  We seek approval.

Many of us say yes because we’ve created a scenario that forces us to say yes.  If I seek outside approval to feel good about myself, then when someone asks me to do something, I feel obligated to say yes in order to stay in their good graces.

This is a subtle dynamic, because most of us don’t believe that we are so controlled by wanting to be liked.  Unfortunately, though, the truth is that many of us have placed our value on what others think of us.

Wanting to be liked isn’t a bad thing.   But when I make my own value and worth dependent on what others think of me, then I’ve created a scenario that doesn’t allow me to take care of myself – if caring for myself means disappointing someone else.

For me, this was a deeply spiritual issue.  When I realized that I needed others to define my worth, I couldn’t help but feel worthless.  It took time in a quiet, prayerful place to hear the soft truth of who I am and from whom comes my worth.

2.  We’re unrealistic about what we can really do.

multiple shadows of the same person
Photo by Demi-Brooke

Raising children automatically squeezes our schedules and crunches our time.  When we have a clear handle on what time we truly have, we know when we can comfortably say yes, and when we confidently need to say no.

I have a small amount of “free” time every week when the kids are being watched.  For weeks, I consistently expected myself to get done more during these times than I possibly could have.  I ended up constantly feeling behind the eight ball.    I felt unaccomplished, disappointed and frustrated.

I found a helpful, simple solution.  For every task on my list, I mini-task it.  This means I break it down into its smaller baby steps.  I may have this on my list for the week:

  1. Mail gift out to Melissa

Underneath I will mini-task it:

  1. Mail gift out to Melissa
  • Find box big enough for gift
  • Wrap gift
  • Pack gift in box
  • Address box
  • Bring to post office

Then I will assign the approximate amount of time each baby step will take:

  1. Mail gift out to Melissa
  • Find box big enough for gift – 3 min
  • Wrap gift – 5 min
  • Pack gift in box and seal – 5 min
  • Address box – 2 min
  • Bring to post office – 15 min

Before breaking it down, I wouldn’t have thought this task might take me 30 minutes.  But now that I do this to all my tasks, I only expect to get done what is reasonable given the time I actually have.  This has helped me say no, because I am better at predicting what time things may take.

3.  Our priorities are unclear.

It also helps to spell out my top priorities in life.  They’re different now that I’m a mom and home manager.   What I say yes to impacts other people in my life.I learned how to quickly evaluate a request so I wouldn’t default into saying yes when I should have said no.

By identifying my priorities, I can ask myself, “Is taking this on directly related to my top priorities?” If it isn’t, it’s better if I wait and consider whether I have time for it – before I say yes.

For example – I love my friends.  They are tremendously important to me and remain a priority in my life.  But they are a different priority than my husband and children… and rightly so.

So now, when a friend asks me for a favor, I have to consider the impact of saying yes.  It’s been hard, but when I honor my priorities, I’m more peaceful and confident.  One great way to get clear on your priorities is to write a family mission statement.

4.  We do for others what they can do for themselves.

This one sounds harsh, huh?  I don’t mean for it to be.  I love doing things for others.  I love modeling generosity and extending charity to those around me.  But sometimes we take on the giving role so often that we don’t consider whether our doing it is a good thing.

My children are young.  Most of what I do for them needs to be done,  but they are not completely dependent any more – at least not my two-and-a-half-year-old.  I’ve realized there are many things he could do for himself.  And by me not doing them, I’m not giving him the opportunity to grow. Now, he loves making his bed, picking out his clothes, putting his laundry in the basket, helping me make lunch, and bringing his plate to the sink after meals.

In our lives, relationships of all kinds, if left unchecked, can become stale and unhealthy.  When your own priorities have shifted, you need to reconsider what you do for others, and whether an act of giving is a positive, healthy one, or if ultimately, it’s better to let someone take more responsibility for their own needs.

balanced girl on a ball
Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

To end on another Stephen Covey note, “Parenthood is the most important leadership responsibility in life and will provide the greatest levels of happiness and joy.” As leaders in our families, we must consider the model we are setting for our children.

Overstretching ourselves at the cost of healthy and balanced life is never something we’d wish for our kids.  Correcting this tendency in our own life is a beautiful gift to them.

Do you find that you say yes when you mean no?  Is saying no something that is hard for you to do?

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  1. Rhea @ Experiencing Motherhood

    What a great post! I find that I often say yes to social events. Having family come over or getting together with dinner. While I’m a social person, it’s often on the lower list of my priorities when other things are pressing and I think I do it out of guilt or a sense of duty. once I go through with the activity, I’m glad I did, so maybe that’s the other motivating factor. But it is hard to say no!

    Rhea @ Experiencing Motherhood´s last blog post…Potty Training Story


    I love the idea of “mini-tasking.” You’re right, things often take much longer than you imagine.

    I’ve always struggled with people-pleasing, yet I don’t find it hard to say no. Like you said, I know what my life’s mission is, and what my priorities are. Knowing that makes it SO much easier to make decisions.

    Thanks for the great thoughts,
    Jamie´s last blog post…organization: filing frustration

  3. Dominique

    The mini-tasking idea seems great. It really gets more organised. For me family comes first no matter what .. so it isn’t really hard for me to say NO if the request cannot fit into my schedule.

    Dominique´s last blog post…TT- Prizes/Ryan swimming

  4. Nicole

    This is a great post and an idea I’ve been thinking about as well lately. The breakdown of one task is eye-opening and while I can’t do it for everything, just doing it for one to do item would be helpful in not overwhelming myself.
    I provided an idea about a To Be list a while back at my blog that correlates well with the idea of priorities. You can find it here:

    Nicole´s last blog post…UTurn-How Will You Celebrate Easter?

  5. Sherri (Serene Journey)

    Hi Lisa,
    I like how you align your decision making with your priorities, which have changed a bit now that you’re a mom and home manager. I think you’ve said this in a previous post, but it’s really important to remember that when you say Yes to one thing you are always saying No to something else. It would be a terrible thing to say No to your top priorities in order to people-please.

    I know a lot of moms who think they can do it all and they are run ragged and they are exhausted. I love the mini-task concept and writing the time beside each one. I will pass this on for them to have a read I think it will help a lot. Lovely post!

    Sherri (Serene Journey)´s last blog post…Quick Clean Your Home In Under 20 Minutes

    • Lisa @ WellGrounded Life

      Hi Sherri,
      Oh you hit on a topic I feel so strongly about! The SuperWoman/SuperMom lie. The tendency for us to believe we can do it all is not a fair or honest option–and I think it becomes the benchmark that too many women hold themselves in comparison too (including myself!).
      By knowing that when we say yes to something, we also are saying no to something else has really helped me find a more honest balance…I wrote about that at this post (so humbled you remembered :))

      Lisa @ WellGrounded Life´s last blog post…I’m at Simple Mom today: Why we say yes when we really mean no

    • Donna

      I know how to fix it. Grow the fuck up. Look after your own kids. But we get heaps for them at daycare. $130 a day. Can you believe that. Love it. I love “away” mums. Stay away. Kids are great.


      sparkly, sparkly, friendship,


  6. Marci

    Very well put! Many times we do seek others approval or try to live up to what others expect of us. Then, we fall short because we try to do more than we can really accomplish. Awesome post!

    Marci´s last blog post…When the going gets busy…

  7. Nicki at Domestic Cents

    Great post again Lisa. The one that’s hard for me is “4. We do for others what they can do for themselves” I fall into this with my daughter. I find myself doing things for her that could probably do just fine for herself if I let her. I have to make a conscious decision to help her by NOT helping her.


    Nicki at Domestic Cents´s last blog post…Find Me At Family Bliss

    • anja

      I agree that #4 is pretty huge. Especially since my task as a mother is to nurture people who will eventually have to do without me!

      anja´s last blog post…Bike and Bus with Kids

  8. Taylor at Household Management 101

    This was a great article! I especially like the idea of breaking tasks into mini-tasks. It really does help get us more realistic about how long something will take. I am notorious for underestimating how long things take and getting too much on my plate sometimes.

    I also second your opinion about chores. I also like to help my children with things, and there are things they just can’t do for themselves and I love to do it for them (well, at least most of the time :). But there are plenty of things they can do themselves, and not only does that make it easier on my in the long run (after the training period where they learn how to do the chore is over) but it also helps them. They need to know how to do this stuff for themselves at some point anyway. That is, ultimately, what we are doing with our kids — training them to be adults and take on adult responsibilities.

    • Lisa @ WellGrounded Life

      Hi Taylor,
      Very true! My mother often told me and my sister that she never required us to do many things around the house because it was just “quicker and easier” for her to do them herself. Yet by taking the time in the begining to train and teach our children we are giving them the tools they need for their growth! Great point!

      Lisa @ WellGrounded Life´s last blog post…I’m at Simple Mom today: Why we say yes when we really mean no

  9. Amanda/Crunchy Christian Mom

    I definitely struggle with knowing how things line up with my priorities and saying no — especially when the boundaries are unclear between family activities and friend activities — we’re all VERY social. Do I really have to say NO to my kids and my friends when they want to do something fun, just because my house is a mess and I really need to make a doctor appointment for myself? *sigh* Sometimes the fun thing is a way for me to procrastinate the other stuff. 😉

    Amanda/Crunchy Christian Mom´s last blog post…This week’s plan within my Menu Plan

    • Lisa @ WellGrounded Life

      Hi Amanda,
      Working through what I say yes and no to has actually helped me have MORE fun because I became very clear with myself that having a perfectly clean house is not my priority…of course, I do know that there is a line with having a tidy, organized house and if I let too much go for too long, it does start impacting how well our days run….so I guess it all comes down to finding that balance 🙂
      p.s. I love your pic!!

      Lisa @ WellGrounded Life´s last blog post…I’m at Simple Mom today: Why we say yes when we really mean no

  10. Stacey @ The Blessed Nest

    I love the idea of mini-tasking!!! I’ll really feel like I”m actually accomplishing more this way! Love seeing items crossed off the list :)!

    I used to feel bad if I said “no”, but now there’s no guilt involved, and I just can’t care if people don’t like it. My health and my family have to come first! I also had a family meeting and we agreed that we all had responsibilities as a member of this family. My husband was more than willing to help, and the children love to be “helpers” and are learning to be quite responsible for their own things and spaces.

    Great post!

    Stacey @ The Blessed Nest´s last blog post…"Hello, My Name Is Stacey….

  11. Neas Nuttiness

    This so hit home for me!!!

  12. Shan

    This was great! Number 3 reminded me of a time when someone told me “When you say ‘yes’ to someone else, you are saying ‘no’ to yourself or some other aspect of your life.” Looking at the equation a little differently and realizing that a request most often involves a no, although perhaps not to the one asking directly, can be helpful, and I needed this reminder.

  13. Kelli

    Great post… I’ve been struggling with how to cut things out of my life lately so that I am not so stretched, so this was great timing!

    Although, as far as having your children help you… what about when you have twin 3 year olds and a two year old? Anyone have any advice on how to allow them to help without chaos erupting?

    Kelli´s last blog post…What a week

    • Lisa @ WellGrounded Life

      Hi Kelli,
      Great question! I would love to hear other’s input as well because I have very young ones (though you certainly sound like your hands are joyfully FULL!! 🙂 )
      I think I added the kid’s chores as an example not because at this stage I can leave my son (2 1/2 yr old) alone to do these things, but because I hope to begin the process now to instill that we all can and should contribute to the family and household by doing what we can. I guess I’m hoping the investment now will pay off later in this regard.
      So, for example, making the bed with Jackson takes longer than if I ran through and did it myself, BUT it also means I don’t have to try and find time when he is otherwise occupied to do that task. We do it together, imperfectly and much slower to be sure. Same goes with many other things. When I include him it OFTEN doesn’t happen quickly or perfectly but I also find I am not trying to squeeze as much time away from him either, and that has really been a bonus for me in how the days go.
      Just my thoughts….anyone else??

      Lisa @ WellGrounded Life´s last blog post…I’m at Simple Mom today: Why we say yes when we really mean no

      • Lauren

        You’ve just described the way I try to view “chores”. The more chores I take on alone, the less time I get to spend with my husband and 9-month-old daughter. That’s not the kind of mom I want to be, so every day I use that as my motivation to “do” less and “be” more. I was not this type of person before my daughter was born. I’m definitely a type A perfectionist by nature. I’ve noticed there’s not one time that I regretted saying no, but many times when I’ve regretted saying yes.

  14. Iva @ Horizontal Yo-Yo

    Lisa, I believe this is the first time I’ve read any of your work; I like it!

    I am a chronic people pleaser. For whatever reason, I love to be loved. I’m sure there is some deep-seeded psychological reason, but it is what it is. After being married to a wonderful man for 12 years, we still fight over the dreaded Super Mom Myth. He says I’m already a super mom (awww) and I should stop spreading myself too thin.

    But, I kid you not, after reading this article, I had to make a decision – one where in the past I would have tried to literally be at two places at once. Instead, I set my priorities and realized that I couldn’t do both tasks at the same time and in this case, dinner, was going to have to supersede the other activity so that we could attend church tonight. (I guess that’s really three activities, isn’t it?)

    I do love the idea of setting up mini tasks. So often, I realize that the tasks I think will take ‘just a minute’ take so much longer!

    Iva @ Horizontal Yo-Yo´s last blog post…I’m a Christian Part III

  15. Brandie Kajino

    Wow, this is a fantastic post. It’s true that many people do not have a real idea of how long a project will take. Even one as small as a present for someone. I love the way you broke it down into small steps. Very simple and easy to understand. But hey, that’s what you do. 😉

    Brandie Kajino´s last blog post…Quote of the Week: Faster isn’t always better

  16. Mistress B

    Great post. I’m trying to re-jig our family routine at the moment because I am that ‘frayed, exhausted, stretched thin mum who will implode at any moment now’ lately.

    We have a lot going on that is necessary and will make life easier in the long term, but some things are getting lost along the way. Balance is key.

    Mistress B´s last blog post…I’m gonna be re-jigging the family routine

  17. Lynne

    Hi Lisa! Sad but true post. I have trouble saying no to myself. I am always trying too hard to do so much for my family, work, & home. I know I should “just let things go a bit” but I can’t tell myself NO Don’t do that! I feel the need to help/nurture/take care of everything and everyone. I guess that’s a womanly thing. I’m one of those people who couldn’t tell you if my couch is comfy b/c I’m never sitting on it …I’m always on the go! Now that I’m 8 months pregnant…nesting is in high force. This post really helped me to remember to think about what I CAN accomplish and what I really NEED to get done – To be realistic! I also enjoyed reading the comments…it seems I’m not alone! Again, great post!!

    Lynne´s last blog post…What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?

  18. Sara

    I am a huge Covey fan. I have read all sorts of SH books and I think his are the best. If you live your life from your values/principles/goals you are on the right track.
    Until I started practising 7 habits and first things first, I was all over the place … and I have two young kids and a tired hubby, so I was dragging them on the roundabout with me.
    Finally after many stressful mornings I got with the program. I value peace and calm (along with cheerfulness and fun) but I wasnt structuring our mornings according to this and it all became very unfun.
    So I tweaked the mornings and realised that the afternoons can be a mixture of fun and homework.
    I love the bit about saying yes to others, is kind of taking time from your priorities (my MIP family). We realised that and as a result we have Sunday as a family day, unless its something really worthwhile for our family. So last week, we stayed in our PJ’s all day. My 7 yo daughter loved it so much, she told all her friends at school that we have “Pyjama days” at home.
    Thanks for the post, I loved it!

  19. Kim @ Forever Wherever

    My children share in a ton of work around the house. We are a family and everyone helps everyone else…what a team!

    Kim @ Forever Wherever´s last blog post…Decorating With Love!

  20. Alger

    This is valuable advice regardless of whether or not you’re a parent. Learning to say no to other is critical to self-preservation and personal growth. Cheers.

  21. Lora

    Good for both men and women.


  22. Priya Viswanathan

    It couldn’t have been said any better. I loved this post! Awesome.

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