No Is Not a Four Letter Word

Psychology Today recently ran a great story about the word “no” and how difficult it is to say and hear it. I had long developed comfort with saying no, but I realized that saying no is not just about uttering the word; it’s about being comfortable with the thought processes and emotions behind it.


Many of us, especially women, have been taught to be agreeable. Over time, we learn that it’s better to go with the flow and accept whatever is offered to us. This tends to lead to a mix of unhealthy things – codependency, abuse, low self-esteem, and unhappiness.


A couple of years ago, a close friend asked for a big favor. I wanted to help, but I knew that doing so would mean overextending myself and creating resentment. As my stomach sank, I knew that I had to say no, but I also wasn’t sure whether our relationship could handle it. After more thought, I realized that I didn’t need or want to be in any relationship that could not handle me saying no. This also helped me realize that I needed to improve my ability to hear no and not withhold positive regard for the other person.


The process below is a great way of thinking through when, why, and how to say no without feeling guilty.


1. Clarify your values.

Knowing what works for you and what doesn’t becomes much easier when you know what’s important to you. What are your top 5 values? Are you clear about why you value these things? Are you prepared to prioritize them no matter what?


2. Can the relationship afford it?

Relationships are like shared bank accounts. Both parties have to make deposits, and there come times when both parties need to make withdrawals. If you’re prone to feeling used or resentful, it may be because you’ve been making repeated deposits into an account with a person who only makes withdrawals. Ideally, the account remains in the black because both folks are making deposits and neither are withdrawing more than the relationship can bear.


3. What are the outcomes and consequences of saying no?

Does saying no mean that you damage the possibility of future opportunities with this person? Does it mean that you have more time for something important to you? How will the other person perceive your no? Consider these things, but don’t allow them to determine your choice.


When you find yourself needing to say no, here’s what you should remember:

1. No is a complete sentence. If you want to offer an explanation as a courtesy, that’s great, but there are many situations that don’t demand an explanation saying no.

2. Saying no to the good means you can say yes to the great.

3. Offer alternatives. The fact that you need to say no to a request as presented doesn’t mean you can’t say yes to a slightly different arrangement or offer an equally helpful alternative. Get creative.

4. There are plenty of assertive ways to say no without using the word no.

Maybe something is not a good fit for you or maybe you don’t have time right now. These both get the point across without the sting of using no.

5. Boundaries are healthy. Even when it feels uncomfortable to say no, taking care of yourself is a noble act. Feel good about being mature enough to do and say what you need to in ways that serve you and others.