Why Millennial Women Have Such a Hard Time Saying “No”

There's particular pressure around the usual suspects: work, romantic relationships, and meeting their own and others' expectations.

In my work as a self-help writer, I’ve worked with a lot of millennial women who have a hard time saying no. It can be about anything and everything, but there’s particular pressure around the usual suspects: work, romantic relationships, and meeting their own and other people’s expectations.

This isn’t a new problem for women. In fact, saying no is something most humans — but especially women, given how we’re born and raised within a patriarchal system — struggle with to some degree.

In my new book, The Joy of Saying No, I explain, “Assuming you’re not a child right now, you were raised during the Age of Obedience. Driven by strictness, discipline, and control, this style of raising, interacting with, and communicating with children centered on making them ‘good’ by teaching them to unconditionally obey authority figures, instilling a sense of obligation, and, ultimately, ensuring they were compliant, excessively prone to agreeing with others. This prepared us for work and being adults that meet society’s expectations.”

When you consider why millennial women have their struggles with “no,” it comes down to what they internalized about what it means to be “good” and what they think a woman like themselves is supposed to say “yes” to.

The Joy of Saying No by Natalie Lue
HarperCollins Focus

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As someone in my mid-forties, I came of age in the ’90s, near-constantly hearing about how “Women can have it all.” There were more portrayals in the media of women working outside the home, albeit often with shoulder pads, and expected to be “like men” to succeed. And there was an expectation, which often felt like pressure and obligation, to be, do, and have more than women before us.

Millennial women were also born and grew up during part of this “have it all” era — a norm that was compounded by the acceleration of technology.

The internet offered a window into what other girls and women were apparently being, doing, and having (hello, comparison!). Plus, technology, in general, shifted working norms. Whereas hustle culture was typically reserved for Wall Street-type environments and “workaholics” who did more hours than their job paid, suddenly, it was just life.

Millennial women have a particular issue with saying no because they’re less likely to remember what it was like before our self-worth became tied to professional measures of success and “having it all” by the new definitions. Women before them can remember when they weren’t supposed to juggle being work and achievement machines with ticking the boxes of relationship and parenthood.

Business Woman

The way you were educated, what you were told was possible for you, what people expected of you — these are part of what you believe, on some level, you need to comply with today to be a “Good Person,” a “Good Woman.” They feel like obligations.

There’s likely a part of you that feels like you’re failing or not giving 100% when you so much as contemplate saying no about certain things. These mentalities and attitudes you’ve internalized are about pleasing society by living up to its idea of being good, not reflective of who you actually are and want to be.

Part of changing your relationship with “no” is about recognizing what might be unhealthy “norms” you’ve subscribed to in a much earlier part of your life that affect what you feel obliged to say yes to today.

As you move through life, notice the why behind what you say yes to. Are you saying yes to something because you want to or because you’re afraid of what will happen if you say no? If it’s the latter, that’s people-pleasing and an opportunity to say no.

Something else to consider is whether you’re avoiding saying no because you don’t think it’s what the “right” kind of woman does. It’s okay, for instance, to want to have children or not want to have them, or to not work a gazillion hours. You do you!

Also, evaluate where you feel pressure. Maybe you’re chasing the Big Career Accolade or feeling like you need to nail down a relationship and have a baby pronto. These are all well and good if they’re based on genuine personal preference, but big problems if they’re what you think you’re supposed to do or because you think that ticking these boxes will make you feel worthy and whole.

Woman Stressed

Learning to say no is also about recognizing where saying yes puts you at odds with your values and compromises your well-being.

For instance, you might be someone who values quiet time and spending time with loved ones, not being stressed out to the max. But, if you’re taking calls on your day off and working all hours, you won’t have the boundaries to say yes to yourself.

When you get clearer on what you need to, want to, and should say no to, you get to say yes to happier, healthier you living an authentic, joyful life.

Natalie Lue’s book, The Joy of Saying No, is available now wherever books are sold. 

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