The Art of Saying NO

Mariel Witmond
Mariel Witmond

23 September, 2022

I have an almost three year old whose first word was “no”. I can’t help but consider the irony that as a child all we seem to hear is no, and yet as an adult so many of us struggle to say it. Interestingly enough, there is a link between the two.

As children we start testing our boundaries in an effort to form our sense of self – developmental milestones that parents both desire and dread. This sense of self will later impact our ability to assert our own boundaries as adults. When we fail to learn to test limits respectfully, “no” becomes the easy go-to that parents use. Unfortunately, hearing the word “no” too often without the tools to help us navigate our feelings can actually lead us to shut down emotionally. We create negative associations to the word, which can damage our self-confidence and self-esteem in the long run. It’s this lack of identity that later makes it harder for us to constructively make choices and to form healthy boundaries that enable us to say “no” more readily to things we don’t want to do.

Traumas in our childhood teach us to fear rejection and judgement. Guilt and shame become coping mechanisms that stop our ability to express ourselves freely. Having been programmed to do what we are told – to be “good” and “nice” children – we lose sight of our ability to honor our own needs.

This is where it begins but there’s more to it than that. 

As adults, in many ways we have been culturally conditioned to say yes, having been convinced that those that get ahead in life are the ones who say yes to everything. We’ve been socialized to be pleasing as part of our need for connection, negating the healthy boundaries that keep us from abandoning ourselves for the sake of others. As such, we fear conflict and strive to avoid confrontation with others in a bid to sidestep discomfort. We don’t want to let anyone down, even if by being this way we might be letting ourselves down instead.

Boundaries are a reflection of the subconscious fears we have acquired in our conditioning. Our inability to say “no” means that we overcommit ourselves, leaving us feeling depleted. Additionally, in a bid for connection we start hiding our true selves, and that inability to express ourselves honestly in the long run can result in things such as anxiety and depression. We hide our truth, even from ourselves, leaving us feeling lonely and disconnected from the world around us. Loose boundaries lead to disconnected relationships and feelings of being misunderstood and taken advantage of. Without boundaries and a healthy self esteem, it can be hard for us to form strong identities of ourselves – and is why we attach ourselves to our roles, to our relationships, and to our belongings.

We are not helping anyone serving from an empty cup. So, what are some boundaries we can put into place?

  1. Boundaries are like rights and you have the right to ask for what you need, and that includes asking for help (something many of us struggle with). For example, you may have taken on more than you can currently handle at work. Try reaching out to a colleague and asking them for some support, or speaking with your manager and seeing if you can hire an intern to assist with smaller tasks. Remind yourself that we can do anything, we just can’t do everything. Ask yourself, what am I trying to prove by doing it all myself? What is the worst thing that could happen if I asked for help? What is the best thing that could happen? Can I handle either outcome?
  2. You’re allowed to have a voice and with that voice express your opinions, say no, and discuss your preferences so there isn’t disappointment with expectations. Let’s say your partner has agreed for you both to attend a dinner you are dreading because you have so much else on and you aren’t particularly fond of who you will be having dinner with. Can you talk to your partner about how you are feeling and together come to an agreement – both in terms of this specific dinner, but also about future commitments. You may want your partner to run it by you first in the future. You may agree to go but ask that you stay no longer than X amount of time. Don’t assume someone else knows what you want – make agreements over having expectations. Practice gentle negotiation as you express your needs.
  3. You deserve to be treated with respect, but that respect starts with you. Have you ever been in a relationship where you tend to contribute more than your partner? Where you want to solve their problems? Like everything is your responsibility? This type of behaviour can be a form of codependency whereby you take on more than you should and it will leave you feeling exhausted. It’s an over-function often associated with people pleasing. Pay attention to when you become self-sacrificing and remember that we set the tone for how others treat us.

Boundary setting is a practice in mindfulness. Our ability to set boundaries, gain confidence, and be real is often a process of unlearning old beliefs and conditioned fears, and creating practices that support new habits and ways of thinking. Like it or not, it takes work. People pleasing and perfectionist tendencies are behaviours that we have learned and turned into habits over time. The good news is, we can unlearn them too. We can use these traits as cues for emotional awareness. 

Notice when you make excuses for people who cross boundaries in your relationship or when you are too quick to excuse other people’s unacceptable behaviour. 

Here are some tips on how we can get better at saying no: 

  1. Give yourself some space before responding. We can be so quick to answer that our fear of appearing rude stops us from connecting with what we really want. It’s ok to ask if you can get back to someone with an answer later. Don’t feel bad about delaying your response.
  2. Sometimes we’ve gotten so good at oversubscribing ourselves that we don’t even notice how much we have taken on that we don’t want to do. Make a list of all of the things you regularly say yes to and highlight the ones you would rather say no to. Acknowledge them and then commit to NOT doing them. 
  3. Get clear on what healthy boundaries you would like to start implementing and where they went wrong in the first place. Be curious about your upbringing and what may have impacted your unhealthy boundaries. Then focus on how you would like to turn them around.
  4. Draft statements that will support you when you need to say no. Saying no doesn’t make you a bad person, but practicing saying it in ways that work for you can give you the confidence boost you need to stick to your guns. 
  5. Acknowledge that you can’t please everyone, but those that respond badly to your boundaries you are likely better off without.
  6. Pay attention to the physical sensations when you are doing something you don’t want to. Listen to your intuition. Get familiar with how it feels when you abandon yourself for the sake of others so the next time you do it, you recognize that you need to reconsider your actions.
  7. Use affirmations to help encourage you in the right direction: 

“I deserve to have my needs met.” 

“I honor myself by honoring my boundaries.”

“I have a right to speak my truth.”

“I don’t have to explain every decision I make.”

“I don’t need permission to choose what is right for me.”

Remember that it takes practice. Be open to the fact that you won’t always get it right, but you are trying and that’s what matters. With more compassion and awareness we can catch ourselves more often, and implement the tools that support the kind of behaviour we want to ultimately embody. 

Healthy boundaries are the bridge to allowing people to know the authentic you. Having them will help to reduce stress and overwhelm, and will give you the time to focus on the things you really want to do. The more we learn to say no, the more we open ourselves up to the opportunity to say yes – to our integrity and the right things for us. Sometimes selfish is the first step to being selfless, so learn to put yourself first for a change!

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