N is for NO!

I asked my brilliant, funny friend Dennis Vogen, who knows American Sign Language, to send me a picture of him "signing NO!" Now you know why I love him.
I asked my brilliant, funny friend Dennis Vogen, who knows American Sign Language, to send me a picture of him “signing NO!” Besides being adorably witty, he’s also a talented young writer. You can find his books here. 

This series is an alphabetical exploration of 26 options for living well, despite everything. It answers the question–How can a we live well, despite problems?

By Saying No! 

I was taught to be nice, to say okay, fine, yes — while smiling politely. Yet, while saying “NO!” may strike us as not nice, saying yes too often leads to overcommitment, which leads to stress. And stress, according to health professionals at the Mayo Clinic, is unhealthy.
So I’ve been thinking…There are 10 commandments, which for thousands of years, have served to define what is moral and decent in human conduct.

  • Thou shalt say yes, is not one of them.
  • And 8 of the 10 commandments are stated in the negative. “Thou shalt not…”

Because NO! is powerful.
By learning to say no, to overcommitment, overindulgence, and other people’s requests for my time (which if given, may further their agenda while derailing my life), I’ve learned two paradoxes.

  • Real freedom exists only within boundaries, and
  • Stating the negative is often positive.
    • Saying no is healthy. It’s the pathway to stress relief.
    • Saying no is respectful. By turning down new commitments, I honor those I’ve already made.
    • Saying no is adventurous. By saying no to something I’ve always done, I free up time to get to know new people, new places, and new activities.
    • Saying no can be generous. By refusing to participate, I leave a place for someone else to come to the table, to do the work or join the party.

Still, it can be difficult to say NO! To learn when and how to say NO, (click here.)
(And See Just-Do-It).
When do you find it difficult to say no?

44 thoughts on “N is for NO!”

  1. I like your statement that real freedom only exists within boundaries. It reminds me of something that I often am puzzled by — folks who talk about having the right to their personal freedom while at the same time seeming to ignore all of the ways that we are inextricably linked together (on a biological/environmental basis if nothing else). For example, folks who own land with trees on it are theoretically free to clear cut the entire property while ignoring how important the trees may be to local weather patterns, to generating O2 (which we humans breathe in) while binding CO2 (which we humans breathe out), to helping prevent soil erosion (which affects water quality and the health of streams and rivers), to providing vital food/habitat for a wide variety of important animals, etc. etc. etc.

  2. I think that as women it can often be hard to say NO. And then when we finally work up the courage to say it, we often feel like we need to explain ourselves. I’ve been working on trying to confidently turn down invitations to events without feeling the need to say why I can’t make it. It’s more challenging than I expected but it also gives me a sense of control over a situation!

    1. I recently turned down an invitation. I think I did it graciously and without apology,
      but I still felt a little guilty about it. Also felt a sense of relief.
      It is indeed challenging, to come to terms with the fact that life is full of ambiguity.
      I like what you said about how saying no can give us a greater sense of control over situations.

  3. I’m extremely good at saying no. Actually it is one of my favorite word! 😉 Plus, it looks like people expect me to say no! I find it very difficult to say no to truly kind people. Unfortunately (or thank goodness!) there are very few kind people! 😉

    1. I’m convinced that people who find it easy to say no are not only healthier, but happier. 🙂
      You should teach a class, for the rest of us, who have way too much guilt about saying no. I do it; but I don’t find it easy.

  4. That one syllable word can be so freeing. I have felt guilty, at times, for saying ‘no.’ But it’s far better to do that than spread yourself so thin that you can’t be felt. (Hope that doesn’t come out wrong.) 😉

    1. Oh, I’m the queen of guilt. I usually feel guilty when I say no.
      I’ve had to work hard to let my feelings be feelings, instead of decision-makers.
      P.S. It came out just fine — now it’s in the mind of the beholder; and in my mind, it makes perfect sense. 🙂

    1. I agree. There are people who have the ability to make it seem as if they’re doing you a favor when they say no, or at the very least, they convince you that they’re doing the right, moral, ethical, and smart thing. I aspire to be one of those naysayers, rather than a curmudgeon.

  5. Nice post and good points, Tracy. I am in the midst of a very good series on conflict resolution. In the Buddhist tradition there are Three Poisons of the Mind when in conflict: Dissembling, Acquiescing, and Saying No. The last is the most enlightened, according to the instructor, and I believe it. The first two show no understanding (or value) of self; the third needs to be modified in order to either come to agreement or part ways, but at least it values the self. It’s a good course and this post reminds me of lessons learned.

    1. I think there are times when saying no is indeed a toxic habit, one which can close down relationships and limit opportunity.
      Wisdom has to be part of the equation. Maybe when we find ourselves saying no because we’re angry, that decision needs re-examination?

  6. Much truth in this post Tracy. I think sometimes the hardest time to say no is when our ego is flattered by the request. But this needs to be tempered by not saying no because of fear. Saying yes or no needs us to know ourselves.

    1. We can always count on you to bring wisdom to the discussion!
      There’s a whole sermon in your three sentences.
      Thesis–“the hardest time to say no is when our ego is flattered by the request.”
      Antithesis–“this needs to be tempered by not saying no because of fear.”
      Conclusion–“Saying yes or no needs us to know ourselves.”
      Did you sit and ponder, or did that just happen from years of experience?

  7. I found this very thought provoking, especially as I am a person who finds it hard to say the little word no. The people I have trouble saying no to are my family. I just can’t find the strength in me to say it. I know I should sometimes because it would do them good, as well as me, but I get the guilt if I don’t. I have often thought that I need to go to self assertion classes. I thought I would get older and wiser and that would help. But at 54, I am still the same!

    1. That’s a tough, one, Kay–our loved ones are indeed the most difficult people to say no to.
      Consider this: by saying no (to doing too much FOR them) you are, in fact, generously giving them the chance to become increasingly more responsible, reliable, and thoughtful of others’ needs.
      I’m sure you’re going to find the strength to say no when you ought to. Best Wishes!

  8. ‘…may further their agenda while derailing my life…’ I’ve felt like this so many times throughout my life and it took me a long time to get to the point where I was able to put a stop to it, but it hasn’t been easy. All your reasons for saying no when it needs to be said has given me great pause for thought as I never thought about it in this way. For example, how can saying no be generous? But the way you put it, I see it so clearly now. You’ve opened my eyes in a big way Tracey, thank you greatly for this.

    1. I’ve found that when I struggle with something (and I definitely struggle with saying no), it helps to look at it from an opposite perspective.
      I’m writing all this stuff down mostly for myself, because it’s easy, in the heat of emotional stress, to forget what I know and fall back into old habits. That it’s helpful to you, too, is a fantastic bonus.

  9. I agree that it’s important that we set our boundaries, and to do so can be very freeing. Sometimes I most need to say ‘no’ to myself. For example, last evening I was at a volunteer event and the leader was talking about some administrative gaps in the organization. My first impulse was to volunteer to take on those duties. Thank goodness I didn’t utter those words aloud; instead, I reminded myself that I’ve been paring activities from my life in order to focus on priorities, and didn’t need to take anything else on. Learning to rein myself in has been an ongoing work in progress, lol.

    1. Good point, Marlene! I tend to think that I need to jump in and solve the problem. The flip side of the compassionate/competent coin is a healthy dose of “I can do that better than anyone else.”
      Or, as Rod alluded to, flattering my ego. I’ll confess that saying no to all my grand plans is probably the hardest thing I’ve had to learn to do.

  10. Oh, I grew up the same way, saying “It’s okay”, “I don’t mind”, when it wasn’t okay and I did mind. I was praised for being “so grown up” and “unselfish” and I carried it into adulthood, becoming an accomplished people pleaser. It took realizing that I was actually lying, plus I was letting people walk all over me, to force me to take action. How terrifying it was to say “No” to people, especially when their reaction was “Since when do you get to say ‘no’?” It took a lot of practice to get comfortable with establishing and defending personal boundaries. A major victory was when people would ask if I could do them a favor. Before I would say “Yes”, but when I found out what the favor was and couldn’t follow through, they would get angry, saying that I had said I would. With practice I found that it really wasn’t that difficult to ask what the favor was before answering. I am free to say “Yes” or “No”.

    1. It’s amazing, what growth we’re capable of when we set our minds to it.
      I’ve also been an accomplished people-pleaser. And like you, the recognition that often I was, in fact, being untruthful in order to accomplish making other people happy (as if I could make other people happy), helped me stop doing it.
      In the end, the truth does set us free. I like what you said, about being free to say “yes” or “no.”

  11. “Just Say NO to Drugs” and “No Means No” need to move over, Tracy. This is a great post. You succinctly made very good points.
    One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that when I say NO, it should not not be an invitation to talk me into a MAYBE. I think we, especially as females, are taught to be firm but polite, and when the two are weighed in the scales, firm loses out to polite.

    1. I agree. Society admires–or at least makes excuses for–a man who is firm but not necessarily polite (he’s reliable, a leader, responsible), but condemns a women who is un-politely firm (she’s cold, selfish and uncooperative, “b-tc-y”). It’s not fair, and it means that learning to say no, for most women, involves learning to stop caring what other people think of us for saying no.

  12. Great wisdom, Tracy. I’m a great believer in freedom within boundaries and the necessity of saying no. Not sure I’ve ever seen a better list of reasons for saying no than this list above. It should go on a lot of refrigerator doors. 🙂
    I’ve just finished writing about defining A GOOD DAY. Perhaps a good day is when I’ve said no to something so that I can say a stronger yes to something else!

    1. Now you’ve got me thinking that I need to design a set of NO refrigerator magnets.
      I’d include your quote: “a good day is when I’ve said no to something so that I can say a stronger yes to something else!”
      Note to self: NO, Tracy, you don’t have time to design and market a set of refrigerator magnets. 🙂

  13. What do I find difficult to say No to? To something I’d love to do but know I really don’t have time for, like agreeing to respond to two invitations to participate in the One Lovely Blog Award.
    How did I find you today? I read your wise guest post on Kathy Pooler’s website today, which led me to your Facebook page. . . which cautioned me about posting there because you are having FB problems. I’m glad that happened because now I have seen your classy blog and have read the comments, several of whom are from friends I follow too: Judy, Shirley, and Marylin.

  14. Karin Van den Bergh

    Good point and so true Tracy! Not always easy but I think the older you get, the more you’re aware about how precious our time is here and a respectful No at times does offer more opportunities to one’s heartfelt Yes’s. I’m still learning but I’m getting much better at this – thanks but no thanks haha 😉

  15. I hurt people in the past by not saying no. Spreading myself too thin so those I cared for didn’t realise I cared for them. Saying No sometimes is good for everyone.

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