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The power of saying "no"

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

As I write this, I hear the daily negotiation between my toddler and my life partner in the background, “No. No, no pants. No shoes. No coat.”

No is one little word that carries a lot of impact. Over the years, this word has been charged with energy and is affiliated with negativity, close-mindedness, and frankly, being difficult. Leaders and employees equate saying no with being uncooperative or non-collaborative. This word has long been misused to block ideas and abuse power rather than to create boundaries or express needs, goals, desired outcomes, and directions. When we find it difficult to say no at work or at home, our responsibilities can quickly become overwhelming. In order to create a positive workplace, prioritizing mental health and balancing our own needs and our professional demands is crucial.

So, how do we learn to say no in a world full of yeses? Keep reading.

Reframing the meaning “no.”

A lot of us have an innate desire to keep others in our life happy. This is a simple concept, and it makes sense, we’re taught to treat others with respect and be kind and therefore keeping the peace feels natural to us. If you’ve ever described yourself as a “people pleaser” then you are familiar with the word “yes”. This can be closely tied to your sense of worth and acceptance. Does this sound like you?

  • Yes, I can dog sit for you even though I don’t have the mental capacity to care for a living being when I’m not taking care of myself properly right now.

  • Yes, I can come watch your band’s performance even though the late night I’m agreeing to will affect my workday tomorrow.

  • Yes, I can drive you to the airport on Saturday even though it is my only day off and my body desperately needs rest.

Saying yes is something we think makes other people happy, whereas saying no is a much harder task because it involves potentially letting someone down, and often creates a deep sense of guilt, or even shame within us. Why is it that denying someone’s request can make us feel bad? When saying yes to others means taking something from ourselves, no becomes an important word to know when to say.

Agreeing to everything can be an exhausting habit. Think of how many people you know in your life and how many of them might ask you for something in the time that you know them. You may never be able to predict when someone is going to need something from you, but you can learn when you have the capacity to give your energy. One of the key indicators is if saying yes will drain your energy or replenish it. If it feels like it will drain it, then it may be time to harness the power of the word “no.”

Reigniting the power of “no”

No becomes a boundary we must learn how to set, or we may allow the needs of others to cross our own. When we over-commit to others’ needs and take on more than we feel we can handle, we often end up underdelivering elsewhere. Whether it’s the task at hand or in other areas of our life, something’s got to give. We only have so much energy we can share and sometimes by taking on an extra task, something else important to us suffers the consequences.

For many of us, when we underdeliver, we let ourselves and others down. Is taking on one more favor for someone worth the risk of letting them, yourself, or someone else down? As much as saying no to a request from a friend, co-worker, or family member feels like taking a step back in your relationship, it allows for building trust and permission with that person. Letting them get to know you and your needs at a deeper level may remind them that you are human, and you have limitations, which may lead to healthier and more meaningful relationships with the people in your life.

Reconnecting to your needs

Saying no is about knowing your boundaries. It’s okay if you value helping others when possible. But you need to know when you are agreeing to give something at the expense of yourself. What does this mean? Does saying yes to this favor mean you’re giving up something you need like rest or healing time? Does saying yes make your body feel uncomfortable? When you look inward to see how your body reacts to a favor you may learn something about your true feelings toward the task. Sometimes you may even find yourself having to say no to something you want to do. And this is okay too, you are only one person, and you can only be in one place at a time. There are only so many hours in a day and you can’t be expected to get more done than physically possible. We are not superheroes, we have a finite amount of capacity and energy. The superhero mentality is unhealthy, it’s time to save yourself!

Keep in mind that sometimes, no can just mean no and it doesn’t require an excuse or explanation. You don’t always need to justify the reasons behind your no’s.

Learning to effectively say no means allowing yourself to say yes to other things. If you’ve had a hard time saying no in the past, then try this exercise:

I am not willing to __________. I am willing to ___________.

Key Takeaways

Saying no to something extra means you can be all-in for more important things in your life. Reframe what no means. It doesn’t need to be a negative response to a hopeful question. There is power in the word no - knowing when to say it, knowing when you need it, and using it to give back to yourself.

Setting boundaries can be a challenging thing to do, but it gives you the space to breathe and be healthy. It makes room for you to take up more space. And it ultimately lets you reconnect to your body and your mind. Being in touch with yourself and your needs and communicating those within your relationships will also allow for a deeper connection between you and the people in your life. Setting boundaries can mean learning what you are willing to do and learning what you are not willing to do. And these are always good things to know about yourself. At Ember, we value reconnecting to yourself, and our workshops create the space you need for thoughtful reflection. What are you going to say no to so that you can say yes to yourself?


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