One of the things I most enjoy about my work as a therapist is the diversity of my clients. I learn new things every day from a broad cross-section of people with differing careers; socio-economic backgrounds; medical conditions; racial, ethnic, and religious differences; genders; sexualities; and family histories.
But even with a group as diverse as this, I can say with confidence that the majority of my clients have one underlying problem that has led them to my office. They have not yet learned to say "no." If you have not yet developed the skill to consciously use this one small word, your emotional health will suffer greatly over the long term.
Why saying "no" is so hard.
Of course we all have to do things we don't want to do; that is just part of life. But so many people agree to do things they do not even have to do. And sometimes these things are big; I see people accepting promotions or jobs they don't want, marrying people they feel unsure about, and having children before they're ready. The truth is, for many of us, saying "no" is hard! We want others to like us and accept us; we want to show up for them, meet their expectations, and please them.
I know it's very hard to think about letting someone you care about down or falling short of someone’s expectation of you. Sometimes saying "no" can even be heartbreaking to someone else. But so is saying "yes" when you don’t really mean it.
Honoring yourself is the most important thing.
It's true that sometimes saying "no" will hurt someone else's feelings—you may even disappoint someone you admire. But you are also fostering resentment and regret when you don't honor yourself and your needs. This leads you to be even more critical of yourself and spirals into negative self-talk, which can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
If you find that you are spending your time participating in activities or arrangements that make you feel resentful, exhausted, or down on yourself, here are five ways to start cultivating the healthy habit of saying "no":
1. Check in with your body.
When you are asked to do something for someone, receive an invitation, or are in any way summoned to give your time and energy to something, take a moment to see how you feel in your body. Does the request make you feel tired? Do you suddenly experience an otherwise unexplainable headache or some other physical symptom?
Your body is very wise and will often tell you if something isn't right. A teacher of mine once said that your body sends you all kinds of signals when something isn’t working for you. When you don’t listen, it drops a proverbial piano on your head. Next time something is asked of you, see if you can tap into those signals your body is sending early on, and let that be your guide.
2. Ask yourself this question.
Consciously ask yourself, "Do I really want to do this?" If the answer isn’t clear, you may want to consider writing about it as a way to think it through. Or if it is a complex choice, talk it over with someone you trust. When you make it a habit to say yes without thinking, it takes some time and active work to relearn how to hear that inner voice that tells you whether or not you truly want something.
3. Take time before answering.
I once had a supervisor who never said yes to any request without first saying, "Let me think about it." Even if the idea was a no-brainer and I knew she would approve it, she habitually bought herself some time to think things through. I thought it was brilliant. There are very few requests, invitations, or propositions that need to be answered right away. As somebody who's had to learn that it's OK to say "no," I still notice my initial reaction to almost any request of me is a cheerful "sure!" I've had to learn to take some time to think about what is being asked of me before I answer.
4. Start by saying no to little things.
Before you find yourself in a therapist’s office wondering how you ended up in this marriage or that job or whatever city you are in, start by practicing saying "no" to small things first. This can be to telemarketers, the up-sell at a store, or a social invitation you really don't feel like accepting. The more you practice declining the invitations and things you do not want, the better equipped you'll be to decline the bigger propositions in life.
5. Don't give elaborate excuses.
If someone invites you to dinner and you don’t have any other plans—and therefore no excuse besides you don’t feel like going—just say you can’t do it that night. You don’t have to tell your friend that you are sick and your dog passed away and your toilet overflowed. If you want a quiet night at home, take it. You don't need to justify that or apologize! People don’t necessarily want or need your excuses; they just want to know if you can meet up or if you're interested in the job or if you can do them a favor or not. Saying no to something, for whatever reason, is often enough.
Of course there are times when you have really misled someone by saying "yes" to them again and again, so explaining your reasons for your perceived change of heart is called for. Those conversations are never easy to have, especially if you are faced with the prospect of hurting someone you care about. But keep in mind—should you find yourself in such a situation—that not being honest with them (and with yourself) will only have increasingly negative ramifications later on.
Learning to say "no" when you authentically mean "no" is a life skill. For some people, it comes quite naturally. For others, it requires habitual practice and conscious use. It may not feel right at first, but it's necessary for living life truthfully and a skill that will promote good overall emotional health.
Still not convinced that "no" is a powerful word? Here's how the power of no can save your emotional life.