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The Danger of Saying 'Yes' Too Much

Why you should know the signs of 'Accommodation Syndrome'

By Jill Smolowe

Do you (like me) have a habit of saying Yes when you really mean No?

No need for a show of hands. We know who we are. We’re the grandmother who postpones a long-planned trip to Bermuda because her grandkids are in sudden need of babysitting. The father who cancels his golf game to make the four-hour drive to his son’s college campus to deliver a forgotten bag of sports gear. The wife who finds herself running the errands her husband put off all weekend and now claims he’s too busy to handle. The businesswoman who rearranges her own impossible schedule to make other people’s schedules possible.

The Accommodation Syndrome

When such requests land, we know we want to to say No. We even know that were the places reversed, the person doing the asking would likely offer a firm No, then immediately wipe the matter from his or her mind. But that’s not the way those of us who suffer from Accommodation Syndrome roll. Oh, no.

For us, a request no sooner leaves someone’s lips than we let it balloon into a responsibility. Ours. The very thought of disappointing the asker fills us with guilt. Before a No can form on our lips, a counter patter of accommodation begins to unspool in our heads.

I could probably squeeze that in if I rearrange … I should step up and be the grown-up in this situation … I pride myself on meeting other people’s needs ...

Fast on the heels of the coulds and the shoulds comes the menu of potential consequences. Balky child. Sullen spouse. Irascible client. We don’t just see these dreaded consequences. We assume the weight of them. In no time at all, we are human rubber bands, stretching ourselves and our schedules to the snapping point to provide the Yes the other person wants to hear … needs to hear … is counting on.

And the No that for a fleeting moment felt like an option? Gone. Now the very thought of it feels selfish. To say No is to fail the other person — and, by extension, ourselves.

I should be able to make this work … If I don’t step in, how will he get it done? … I pride myself on being helpful …

Red Flags Everywhere

This frustrating dynamic came home to me recently during conversations with a friend I’ll call Bethany. A hard-working entrepreneur who has spent years building a thriving home-based business, Bethany was jazzed after being contacted by a prospective client I’ll call Marta. Marta dangled prospects that, if they panned out, could multiply Bethany’s income exponentially. “Life-changing stuff!” said Bethany.

After their first meeting, Bethany remained excited. “It was a love fest!” she told me. Still, she saw warning signs that suggested she should proceed with caution. “Marta does all the talking,” she said. “I worry if she’s paying attention.”

Over the next month, the red flags proliferated. Where Bethany’s approach to business emphasizes organization, structure and accountability, Marta’s way of operating was scattershot, unpredictable and heavy on finger-pointing blame. “She’s hyper and all over the place,” Bethany said. “It’s work to keep her on point. She always wants more, more, more.”

This wasn’t only Bethany’s perception. Within weeks, she began to hear from Marta’s employees how relieved they were to be working with Bethany. “They say they appreciate how calm I am,” she said. “One guy told me he was so glad I was handling her.”

But for Bethany, handling Marta was one thing; handling her own doubts was another.

Though she quickly surmised that “no matter what I say, I’m wrong,” she kept searching for new ways to make her voice heard.

Though she said repeatedly, “I can’t work with her,” she continued to accept new assignments from Marta.

Though she soon found herself dreading the very sound of Marta’s voice, she could not hear the No screaming inside her head because it was drowned out by the counter patter that insisted she could, she should, she must find a way to meet Marta’s mercurial needs and demands.

When 'No' Feels Like Failure

By the end of the second month, the minefield of red flags had grown dense. Marta was proving late on promised payments. She was ignoring agreed-upon production schedules. She was throwing obstacles in the way of efficiency. She was calling meetings, then showing up late and not paying attention.

And Bethany? She was still twisting herself every which way to make their mismatched business styles work.

During our most recent conversation, Bethany told me that she was angry.


“At Marta?” I asked.

“No, I’m mad at myself,” she said.

Why? Because she’d just acceded to Marta’s request for more of Bethany’s services when Bethany knew she wanted to say No.

“I don’t want to work with this woman,” Bethany groaned.

“Entirely understandable,” I said. “Why can’t you own that?”

“That’s hard for me,” she said. “The success of my business owes much to the fact that I accommodate my clients.”

“So, it feels like a failure not to accommodate Marta?”

“It does.”

And there it was. Bethany was hanging on not because she needed the work or the income. She was hanging on because, for her, to say No to a client’s needs, no matter how crazy or crazy-making they might be, represented a failure — hers. Never mind that Bethany was clear that she neither needed, nor wanted, to work with this woman. She felt it was her role, her obligation, her accommodate-and-avoid-guilt duty to keep trying to meet Marta’s capricious needs.

All Too Common

Her ongoing drama epitomizes the frustration I hear so often from friends, from coaching clients — from myself. We know perfectly well when we want to just say No. Yet we allow our inner demand to accommodate others override our clear preference.

I should be able to turn this around … I just need to get a grip … I pride myself on adapting to other people’s ways of doing things…

I don’t imagine there’s a simple cure for Accommodation Syndrome. But as a first step toward silencing the incessant patter that drives us to accommodate others’ needs, often at the expense of our own, it might help to remember that when someone asks us to do something, the request opens up two options: Yes or no. If we say No, that is a choice. Not a failure.

If, however, we constantly bypass the No option, we are at risk of a greater failure: Never saying Yes to ourselves.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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