By Samara Davisworth
I boarded the plane with sweaty palms and a forged smile while tugging self-consciously at the fanny bag wrapped around my waist. My tenth birthday had just passed, and my parents were waving me off on a solo flight to visit relatives. It was my first ever taste of adult-like independence, and it was also the first time I remember being unable to say the word “no.”
Hours earlier, I had stared in horror at the fanny bag my dad had proudly presented me with. My mother, having sensed my aversion to this fashion statement, whispered, “you’re a big girl now; you can say no to wearing it if you don’t want to.” But the excitement beaming from my dad’s face as I hesitantly tried it on had a strange effect on me. At that moment, the thought of hurting his feelings was far greater than the pull of authenticity my young self had known so well until that point. Twenty-something years later, I still struggle with saying, “no.”
The thing about this word is we start off using it so defiantly. As toddlers, we say it to forge our independence. But as we grow, little by little, this defiance is chipped away and replaced with a need for acceptance. Young children are often rewarded for doing what they are asked, which sets up the notion that love and acceptance are earned by pleasing others. Over time, this lesson develops into a seemingly harmless aversion to the word ‘no,’ which can be a huge detriment to our overall well-being.
Many of us live in a yes world where being a yes person and jumping at all opportunities is essential to lead a rich and successful life. But how many times have you felt that pang of dread after reflexively saying yes to something you simply do not want to do? While your mouth is forming an affirmative response, your brain is screaming, “You are already overwhelmed!” And this happens in all aspects of life. The guilt piles up about wanting to pick up takeout and curl up with a good binge when friends insist you join them for happy hour. You find yourself instinctively saying yes time and time again, no matter how loudly your brain is screaming, “No!”
The desire to be helpful, cooperative, and enthusiastic is ultimately part of the human condition. We care about our loved ones, friends, and careers. So we end up saying “yes” to so many things that we simply can’t keep up. It can lead to a lack of self-identity, job dissatisfaction, stress, anxiety, depression, dysfunctional relationships, or burnout—things that I have experienced in the past because of my limitless people-pleasing reflex.
Sure, some wholeheartedly take on every request, invitation, challenge, and opportunity and still have surplus energy leftover. These mythical creatures are either freakishly energized or simply have not yet hit their wall. Everyone is different, and what one person considers utterly overwhelming may be a walk in the park for another. The key is giving yourself the space and time to figure out your personal limits and desires. Once this has been established, you can then begin to put boundaries into place. But, in order to forge and honor such boundaries, one must become acquainted with one tiny, magic word.
As a people pleaser, I was not sure how to say it at first. I had to look to my husband—I am in constant awe of his ability to respond to a message with “thanks, but I can’t”—full stop. No excuses, justifications, apologies, just a solid but polite, no. It really is as simple as that. There’s no need for complicated, elaborate responses or that deflective, “maybe.” These only prolong the suffering and end up causing more frustration for both parties than if a simple, respectful ‘no’ was established from the beginning. Being honest, clear, and decisive is the kindest way of letting someone down and also the kindest thing you’ll ever do for yourself.
Learning to say no to the things that confine and deplete you will ultimately create space in your life. Suddenly, there will be more time for people you actually want to be around, for work that is genuinely meaningful, for sleep you don’t feel guilty about, for exercise and food that nourishes you, and for hobbies that truly bring you joy. In an age where the self-care journey is becoming more relevant and, indeed, more necessary, learning to say “no” is a great place to start.
For more on the author, click here.