Please Stop “Just Saying No”

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Unmasking misconceptions about personal change is arguably more useful than teaching useful skills. With all due respect to former First Lady Nancy Reagan, let’s look at what’s wrong with her “Just Say No” slogan.

Clients come to me wanting to change. While I think I know quite a bit about how to break bad habits and addictions, achieve success at work, and have satisfying personal relationships, I often ask my clients “what’s your plan to achieve this change?” I’m not holding out on them so much as trying to assess how much they understand motivation and change.

All too often, they start with something along the lines of “I’m wasting my life watching porn on the Internet.” “So what’s your plan to change that?” I ask. “I’m going to stop. I’ll ‘Just say no.'”

For little problems, minor preferences, or weakly-developed habits, “Just say ‘no'” may be a workable solution. Perhaps Mrs Reagan was addressing youth who had not tried drugs but were considering it. In that context, “Just say ‘no'” is a crisp boundary and makes sense. But in the case of ongoing drug abuse, or other destructive, repetitive behaviors, merely saying “no” is asking for failure.

We Don’t “No” Ourselves

The allure of the “just say no” solution rests in a few fundamental misconceptions about how our minds work. The first misconception is how much willpower we have to resist ingrained habits. Willpower is limited and gets “used up” every time we resist a habit. Most people massively overestimate their own willpower and that tendency seems even more pronounced in people with serious addictions.

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I’m guilty of fooling myself in regards to ice cream. I’ll tell myself that I can go to the grocery without going down the frozen foods section, but often I do. When I’m in the frozen section, I tell myself I won’t buy ice cream, but often I do. Then at home, I tell myself I won’t overeat, but often I do. When I’m honest with myself, I know I don’t really understand how hard it is to tell myself “no” in a particular situation.

Willpower is also not a static quantity. Slowly over time, given rest and recovery, it builds back up. But few understand the crucial link between rest, recovery and willpower. A small corner of this truth is captured in the old chestnut “don’t shop for groceries hungry.”

In my own case, if I’m rested, fed, and relaxed, then the frozen food aisle is a lot easier to resist. If I plan ahead with these variables in mind, I know I’ll eat healthier in the long run and saying “no” to bad food is only a small part of my game plan.

The Ecology of Change

Repeated behavior happens for a reason. Anything we do over and over again, no matter how irrational, strange, or outright harmful, has to have some kind of positive payout. Drug addicts will risk everything to get their next high or merely avoid the pains of withdrawal.

The critical thing to understand is that the behavior happens not because of any conscious process, but often in spite of it. Most people with bad habits or outright addictions know — cognitively — that what they’re doing is wrong and harmful to themselves and others. That’s usually not enough for them to stop because they haven’t understood the very real, very immediate payoff of their negative behaviors, and until they do, their behavior will forever be beyond understanding.

Understanding, as necessary as it is, is only part of the solution. Once the underlying reward of negative behavior is recognized, a substitution is required. I believe the primary reason people fight against change, even the change they themselves say they want, is the gut-level clinging to that reward or, more technically, “secondary gain.” Ideally, the way to break an addiction or habit is to replace it with something healthier that satisfies the same underlying need. Unfortunately, perfect substitutions are hard to find, but approximations are better than nothing. Smokers sometimes chew gum or hit the gym to keep their minds off smoking and give their bodies satisfaction in the form of naturally-occurring Endorphins.

Say “Yes” to Something Better

“Just Say No” has another big problem, and that is that human beings hate to lose. Stock traders are fond of saying that losses hurt about three times as much as wins feel good. So “Just say no” is really saying “take a big loss” without explicitly describing what is to be gained. So rather than saying no to drugs, say yes to sanity, health, freedom from the fear of arrest and prosecution. Say yes to freedom from being flat broke because of addiction.

Beyond the mere semantics is where we place our attention. If the goal is to stop doing something, then our attention goes frequently and directly to what we’re trying to quit, which is another way to say we’re actually triggering the old habit. Living with a positive goal to pursue not only takes our attention fully away from the problem behavior, but also reframes the change from a loss to a gain, which is something far easier to stick with long enough to make a genuine change.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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