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The Power of Saying “NO”: From Psychology to Neuroscience

Learning to say No is also related to emotional intelligence (EQ). Hence, adapting one's own and others' emotional states would help in managing tasks, relationships, and challenging situations. Studies showed higher EQ is associated with mental health, job performance, and leadership [2].

Beatrice Barbazzeni
Beatrice Barbazzeni

“Only those who know who they are can say NO with grace.”

How many times did you wish to say “no” to a situation? Whether it was a night out with friends but you had an exhausting day at work, or your boss asked you to stay one hour more or to complete additional tasks on top of your already full schedule. Indeed, you wished to say No, but instead, you said Yes, compromising your time, energy, needs, and mostly yourself once again.

In this article, I will talk about the power of saying No and why it's so important to learn to say No, sometimes. In this regard, I will highlight three main points:

  • Leaning to say No would boost your self-confidence while setting boundaries and rules in any relationship.
  • You can learn to say no by showing a positive attitude and kind words.
  • Learning to say no is a gesture of self-care and respect toward yourself.

Over time, society associated a negative valence with the word “no'', mostly making people feel uncomfortable and intimidated. We often refuse to reject an offer or a favor because we fear that this behavior would be inappropriate and socially unacceptable. But here is the truth. Learning to say no, where needed, is a way of promoting psychological well-being (see my last newsletter on the topic!) and mental health by respecting those values that matter to you. Consequently, this has the effect of boosting your self-esteem and love for yourself.

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How can I say “No”?

Have you ever heard about the “sandwich method”? Saying no it’s hard, especially if you have never done it before. However, developing a natural way for you and that makes you feel comfortable is the right strategy to acquire this healthy habit. You can fit a negative statement between two positive ones through the sandwich method. For example, if somebody asks you to hang out, but you are not in the mood to be that party animal, you can simply say:” Hey! Thank you for inviting me. I appreciate it! However, I had a long day at work, and I prefer to chill out at home. Anyway, if you are free in the coming days, we can organize something and spend some time together. What about having coffee this Saturday?”.

Nevertheless, it is not just about learning to say No, but also understanding why you would like to say it. Which are the circumstances that motivate you? To whom are you saying it? How do you feel about it? Furthermore, by saying no you are automatically setting boundaries and establishing some limits. Setting healthy boundaries means defying the space needed to grow yourself, achieve your goals, and care about your well-being. It is a kind of “balance” between you and the society, between you and others, between your values and the values of those around you. To set clear boundaries, ask yourself, “which is my goal in life?” “When/in which circumstances do I feel happy and comfortable?” “What do I not tolerate?”. These are just a few examples. You may think about your personal life. Therefore, based on your individual needs and activities, you can start setting your boundaries. Do not be afraid to say No. If people around you understand your needs, they will not walk away from you. You have proof that they are not worth your time and friendship if they do. However, boundaries can also be flexible and adaptable to situations.

In contrast to the belief that saying No is selfish or impolite, it is a form of self-love and an indicator of confidence and self-esteem. Why? Because by saying No (e.g., to an invitation, to staying late at work, or adding more tasks on top of your schedule) you would gain more time and energy for yourself, by doing those things needed for getting closer to your goals, or simply for spending time alone or the people who are most important to you. The key is always “you choose how and where you want to invest time and energy,” and nothing or nobody should influence this choice. You would also learn to build trusted and long-lasting relationships by doing this. The only warning to pay attention to is when saying No becomes a coping mechanism associated with isolation and avoiding behavior. Most of the time, depression drags people into a state of apathy, isolation, and withdrawal from society, which empowers the negative feeling of worthlessness and struggle. Recognizing the difference between a “healthy No” from a “warning No” is extremely relevant for your well-being and self-development. If you face a difficult period in your life, and you are aware that your No keeps you from really caring for yourself, think about the possibility of consulting a psychologist.

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Why should I say “No”?

“Most people don’t enjoy saying no to their boss, colleagues, or employees. But a world without No is filled with distraction, chaos, frustration, and burnout” says Dan Rockwell.

Therefore, saying No will change your life while promoting mental health. No means you are creating, following and protecting your priorities. Saying Yes when you should say No translates into a feeling of helplessness, misery, and dissatisfaction. It means you let others be in the power of your life and choices while managing your schedule and priorities letting you feel powerless. Being in charge of your own decision and feeling free to prioritize your needs is not rude, and learning to decline one’s request with grace and kindness would let you feel good about it without regrets. Thus, your No is vital because [1]:

  1. It is just right. We are living in a society influenced by the culture of FOMO (fear of missing out). This means that we mostly feel the pressure of pleasing someone else, leaving less space for who we are and what we like to do. Thus, rather than pretending to feel alright, we should empower our authenticity by being and doing what most suits our personality and life path. Saying No would lead you there.
  2. It values yourself. Often, the lack of assertiveness is related to the fear of affecting relationships while worrying about others’ opinions. However, learning to put yourself in the first place is an act of honor because you are valuing those things that matter to you without being influenced by external factors that deviate you from your purpose.
  3. It is an opportunity. Declining an offer translates into a chance to do something for yourself. Therefore, saying No would generate more opportunities to dedicate time to anything you like.
  4. It enables your decisions. While fostering self-esteem, learning to say No would empower your decision-making process. Indeed, feeling free to make decisions is associated with less complicated and tension-free situations.

“No is the new yes” declared an article in the Financial Times and 2020, even the psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize for his work on saying no to impulses by changing the way we think about thinking. So, the word No is life and a game-changer. It may sound uncomfortable but in a long-term perspective, it will protect you from stressing out and resentful. There is no shame, and you do not need to give explanations or find an excuse. Instead, listen to your gut, intuition, and conscience.

Last but not least, by saying No, your Yes would gain more power and value because they are no more a passive answer. Instead, your Yes enhances the fact you want to spend some time with someone or that you truly would like to adjust your agenda for helping others. And this is a great thing to consider!

Below are a few tips to say No to evolving into the leader of your own decisions:

  1. People would see you as helpful, flexible, and hardworking
  2. Asking for deadlines would be useful if you can’t avoid saying yes while giving you time to organize your agenda
  3. Explain your reasons clearly (e.g Why you can’t do something) and try also to see the other's viewpoints (e.g., could you help me to understand your priorities?)
  4. Kindness is the key. Learning to say No with grace will be better welcomed than showing a defensive behavior
  5. If you cannot make it, learn to delegate a task
  6. Be firm and frank in making your decisions.

Saying No would make you evolve into a leader.

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From psychology to Neuroscience

What do scientists think about it?

Ph.D. students, postdocs, and young principal investigators often find themselves overwhelmed while trying to fit their research with the expectations and requests of their superiors or even colleagues. This might have a tremendous effect on the quality of their work, but mainly on their self-care. Which scientist would tell you that they have a perfect work-life balance? Nobody. However, learning to say No, sometimes, would positively impact career development because setting limits on some activities (as more experienced team leaders do) would enhance the productivity of completing that task and achieving that goal. Besides, it empowers you as a respected human being that has limits, needs, and mental health to take care of! Therefore, mentors should guide mentees in this process, and mentees should learn how and when to say a clear No. Good examples are the capability to evaluate a situation (factors into play), manage time, prioritize tasks, and be more effective. Fewer distractions also bring more ideas while generating a space to think and act clearly. Saying No is also useful for maintaining professional relationships and building the esteem of a trusted scientist.

Learning to say No is also related to emotional intelligence (EQ). Hence, adapting one's own and others' emotional states would help in managing tasks, relationships, and challenging situations. Studies showed higher EQ is associated with mental health, job performance, and leadership [2].

To read more about empowerment in the academic environment and how to say No to your superior read here.

Yes vs No: what is happening in the brain?

Since birth, we have learned to associate the word Yes with approvals and encouragement, whereas the word No with prohibitions and disapprovals. Therefore, we attribute emotional valence to words, and their value or reward or punishment is context-dependent and reinforced by actions and repeated situations over time. But what is happening in the brain in response to Yes (positive valenced word) or No (negative valenced world)?

The neural basis of these mechanisms has not been deeply explored so far. However, the study of Alia-Klein et al. (2007) [3] aimed to investigate the different response patterns associated with spoken Yes or No by implementing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) in a group of healthy volunteers. Based on previous research works, in this fMRI study, it was hypothesized that the word No (negative) and Yes (positive) would be perceived as having a different valence, and therefore generate an opposite brain-behavior response. Moreover, based on a previous study, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) would respond differently and according to the specific emotional valence that is attributed to the word [4]. Hence, attending to No as a valenced signal would mostly lead to anger control to adapt and adjust the behavior accordingly. However, ignoring a No as a prohibitive signal would prevent a behavior change. Results demonstrated that the exposition to the word No was perceived as negatively valenced, consequently generating slower response times (RTs) and evoking a negative signal in the right OFC. Differently, the exposition to the word Yes was perceived as positively valenced, thus leading to faster RTs and evoking a positive signal in an adjacent area of the OFC. Furthermore, the negative valence related to No and the personality trait of anger control were also associated with higher activity in the OFC in response to this word. Therefore, the authors concluded that the sensitivity to the No as the prohibitive command would evolve during childhood while interacting with caregivers, and where the activation of the lateral OFC would be involved as underlying neural mechanisms of emotional regulation, social and developmental processes [3].

For more detail about the research read here.

Saying Yes or Saying No? Taking action X or action Y? Which are the neural mechanisms of self-control? What is happening in the brain when we say No to ourselves? Even though previous studies investigated the neural basis of taking a certain decision over another, only a few researchers tried to explain how the brain responds to the question “do I take action X or not?”, and thus how humans decide whether to take or cancel a specific action that was already planned and considered. In 2007, the study of Brass and Haggard, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, brought the title "To Do or Not to Do: The Neural Signature of Self-Control." [5]

Making decisions and voluntary actions are extremely important in our daily life, and most of the time we take actions without even thinking about it. In this regard, the fronto-median cortex was found as a specific neural network associated with volition. Hence, the conducted fMRI study, aimed at investigating the neural basis of intentionally inhibiting actions, demonstrated that the fronto-median cortex was highly activated in preparation for actions performance but suddenly and deliberately canceled, in contrast to those actions that were planned and executed. Hence, the authors concluded that a specific network would activate in response to intentional actions. Moreover, this brain network would also include a control structure aimed at inhibiting initiated actions or retaining intended actions. Therefore, a specific “free will” brain area was found that might be responsible for the decision process of doing something or not. Lastly, the understanding of which brain area is related to self-control and intended actions have relevance in the context of neuropsychiatric disorders, substance dependence, and personality or attention deficit disorders, in which mechanisms of self-control (e.g., control of impulses, the occurrence to do and say something) are severely impaired [6].

Are we free to say No? Are we aware of the responsibility of our behavior consequent to the word No? Still, many questions arise from this topic, but thanks to the cited scientific studies we now have a better understanding of the importance of saying No and its biological substrate.

“The oldest, shortest words – ‘yes’ and ‘no’ – are those which require the most thought.” (Pythagoras)

“When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.” (Paulo Coelho)

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash


  1. Chowdhury, R. B. (2020). What is the power of saying NO in life? Psychologs. Available at: [Accessed on April 16, 2022]
  2. Antentor O Hinton Jr., Melanie R McReynolds, Denise Martinez, Haysetta D Shuler & Christina M Termini (2020). The power of saying no. EMBO reports, 21:e50918, DOI:
  3. Alia-Klein, N., Goldstein, R. Z., Tomasi, D., Zhang, L., Fagin-Jones, S., Telang, F., Wang, G. J., Fowler, J. S., & Volkow, N. D. (2007). What is in a word? No versus Yes differentially engage the lateral orbitofrontal cortex. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 7(3), 649–659.
  4. O’Doherty J, Kringelbach ML, Rolls ET, Hornak J, Andrews C. Abstract reward and punishment representations in the human orbitofrontal cortex. Nat Neurosci. 2001;4(1):95–102.
  5. Brass, M and Haggard, P. (2007). To Do or Not to Do: The Neural Signature of Self-Control. Journal of Neuroscience, 27 (34) 9141-9145; DOI:
  6. Dobbs, D. (2007). Saying no to yourself: The neural mechanisms of self-control. Scientific American. Available at: [Accessed on April 19, 2022]
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Beatrice Barbazzeni

Beatrice is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience aimed to achieve her MTP with discipline, perseverance and grit:“empower inner potential leading to the growth of exponential winners".