For some people, saying 'no' is hard to do. Why is that?

Lu Feiran
At least 130,000 people across China have struggled with the dilemma of saying no to something they don't want to do.
Lu Feiran

For David Lin, 34, a Shanghai high-school teacher, Spring Festival is usually bittersweet. He likes seeing relatives but shudders at what they will ask of him. 

Yes, family get-togethers this year will be smaller after the government warned the public about the renewed risk of coronavirus infection. But Lin will still be seeing family.

He knows what that means. These kind-hearted people will either ask him to fix problems with their digital gadgets or, worse, they try matchmaking because he’s yet to marry. 

He wants to say no, no, no, at least to the matchmaking. But his parents tell him to “give them some face” because they are, after all, family.

“They don’t understand that it’s tiresome to try to start a relationship with someone with whom you have no chemistry,” Lin said. “If only I could have the guts to say no and not let them interfere in the first place.”

At least 130,000 people across China have struggled with the same dilemma of saying no to something they don’t want to do.

They are part of a discussion group centered on “the theory of declining” on the popular social media platform Douban. Formed last July, it has quickly risen in popularity on the site.

There are all kinds of things that people want to decline. Roommates’ endless requests. Participating in afternoon office tea breaks. Going to dinner. 

The most heated discussion topic on the site so far has been how to turn down a request to babysit a newborn.

The person who launched the topic said her mother was asked by a relative who had a newborn to help her take care of the child. Not wanting to offend the relative, she didn’t know how to prevent her mother from becoming a free nanny. 

“My mother is kind of a soft touch who is embarrassed to decline requests,” she wrote in a post. “But I’m worried about her own health because she has chronic ailments and I don’t want her to get too tired out.”

Most of the group members suggested she should just “play straight ball,” but such honesty is easier said than done.

The founder of the discussion group, a university student whose screenname is Qiyue, said she was inspired by the perception that many people share her inability to turn down requests and invitations.

“It was the last year of high school,” she said. “A good friend of mine told me that he would be attending a variety show that would be live broadcast on TV. He invited me to the show, but I didn’t really want to go. Then he bombarded me with entreating phone calls.”

Finally, she said she lost her temper and said something she later regretted. She didn’t go to the show, but the friendship was lost.

“I wish that I could have expressed myself in a more ‘skillful’ manner to avoid making him unhappy,” she said.

Three days after she formed the discussion group, more than 100 people had joined. Qiyue said she was surprised by the response. Group members share their stories about why they joined.

“I want to overcome the guilt I feel after I decline someone,” said a member whose screenname is DX3906. “I either feel guilty or I feel regret when I accept an unwanted invitation and have to sit awkwardly at a dinner table.”

Psychologists define such persons as “people pleasers.” They tend to pretend to agree with everyone, feel responsible for how other people feel, and find it difficult to say no.

“This is not technically a personality disorder, but rather an unhealthy behavior pattern,” explained Li Jinting, a therapist whose expertise is growth in adolescents. 

“This type of person is usually afraid of failure and or of being snubbed,” she said. “They care about other people’s feelings more than they care about their own.”

Recently on Weibo, another major social media platform, the topic “are you a people pleaser?” provoked heated debate.

In an online poll involving nearly 20,000 people, about a quarter of respondents admitted that they are people pleasers and that often makes them “feel tired with their lives.” Another quarter said they tended toward a fear of offending others. 

Li said such a behavioral pattern may come from lack of love or an unhappy experience of being abandoned or rejected by someone important to them.

“In their subconsciousness they tell themselves: ‘If I don’t try my best to please others, they won’t care about me anymore,’” Li explained. “Or they say: ‘If I make a mistake, they will be disappointed and I will be punished.’ They tend to assess themselves based on other people’s judgments.”

Li said people pleasers need to accept that the world is not perfect, and one cannot control how other people think of them.

“You have to construct a new assessment of yourself and decide that your self-esteem is not defined by the judgments of others,” she added.

So what is the best way to say no?

“One should set up a boundary between oneself and other people,” Li said. “If you find things that people ask of you are breaching that boundary, you can say no with 100 percent confidence.”

High-school teacher Lin said he is coming to grips with the upcoming Spring Festival reunion with relatives.

“Maybe it is not so terrible to say ‘no’ after all,” he said. “After that first step, everything should become easier ... or so I hope.”


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