How To Say No

When I was little and my parents would take me to school, they would tell me to do three things before I got out of the car: “Mind. Be good. And do your best.” I think for practical purposes (and my teachers’ sanity) this was good advice, as I had something of a Machiavellian streak growing up. But I think it also indicates how girls and women are expected from an early age to be acquiescent—to follow the rules of improv comedy and always say yes, regardless of the burden it may place upon them. Women are expected to not make waves, and when they do they are often punished for it. Just the thought of saying no to someone may cause you to feel a pit in your stomach. If you struggle with saying no, don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re not alone. Since it’s healthy (and hard) to put yourself first sometimes, so here are some strategies I used when learning how to say no.  

Take stock of past experiences

Think about times when you did something you really didn’t want to do (and weren’t required to do). This can be anything—going to a party when you knew someone you hated would be there, getting out of bed when all you wanted was to stay at home eating ice cream, etc. Think about why you ended up doing those things (even though you didn’t want to) and if the experience was worth it to you in the end. If it wasn’t, that’s okay. You can use these experiences to predict what kind of things you will want to say no to in the future.



This may sound stupid, but trust me on this: try saying no to things that don’t really matter to you. Sometimes, when we think something is really important or if the stakes are higher, it makes saying no so much scarier. So try saying no to smaller things first to get used to the idea. If your meal at brunch comes out cold and you would normally just eat it and not complain, try asking your server to heat it up for you. If you’re buying a top and the salesperson keeps trying to push all these extra items on you, tell them you’re not interested. The more you do it, the better you will feel when something big comes along that you want to say no to but normally wouldn’t.

Be honest with yourself and others 

Sometimes, when we’re out of practice saying no, it can be easy to confuse things that we feel we have to do with things we don’t have to do. Friendly reminder: you don’t have to hang out with anyone or go anywhere or do anything you don’t want to do. You don’t have to justify that choice to anyone if it truly makes you feel better to avoid certain situations. The reason why isn’t important. If you don’t feel comfortable doing something, you don’t have to do it and no one has the right to tell you otherwise. If people start pressing you about it, don’t worry about making up some random excuse if that makes it easier for you. “I have plans” is the world’s easiest and most harmless conversation ender. If you prefer the blunt approach, “I don’t want to” is also an acceptable response. 

Don’t beat yourself up

If learning how to say no takes some practice, that’s okay. It can take time, especially if you’re working on this later in life. Learning to say no doesn’t mean that you have to say no to every single thing you don’t want to do— it just means when you really feel like you need a break or just want to do something else instead, you can learn how to do that. I’m not saying you’ll never have to do anything you don’t like again, but establishing boundaries for yourself is probably one of the most important things you will ever do. Take time establishing them – you will be glad you did.

Learn when to say no


Corporate culture can be tough to navigate with this kind of philosophy. Very rarely has it gone well when I have told a boss or supervisor “no.” Telling your boss or coworker “I don’t want to” is not a socially acceptable thing to do. Make sure that when you’re working on saying no, you’re learning how and when to do so. If there’s an assignment your boss wants you to do in addition to your other work, maybe say something like, “I’m not sure that I can complete this assignment in addition to my other daily tasks and do both of them well.” Or, if you’re an hourly employee, suggest that an extra assignment will require extra time on your part and therefore extra pay on your company’s part. If you are honest with your boss about your workload and express your hesitation to overcommit to additional responsibilities, the "no" conversation will be much less painful. 

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