“No” Is A Complete Sentence

“No” is a word most of us use too infrequently. And, what’s worse, when we say “No” we usually add on all sorts of wheedly explanations. But “No” is a complete sentence, and here’s why.

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Saying “no” is all about creating personal boundaries that allow you to focus your time doing the things that will make the most impact.

Here are 3 ways to say “no” so you can choose how you spend your time.

Let’s start by agreeing on this premise: If we don’t know how to say ”no” to things, then saying “yes” loses meaning.  

If we say “yes” to everything, we are actually building movements and communities that are based on the models and standards we are trying to fight against. You know these standards well, the ones that are impossible to live up to and are fueled by capitalism, a culture that prizes busy-ness and causes people to curate their lives to perfection on social media.

In part 2 of our self-care series, we’re focussing on the word “no” because it’s the anchor for everything “yes” in our lives.

Saying “no” is difficult for so many people because saying it brings feelings of guilt. We feel like we’re not doing enough and that things are going to fall apart without our personal involvement. Of course, logically, we know this isn’t true. We realize that with everything happening in the world, even if we were capable of working 24/7, it still wouldn’t be enough. Yet, the guilty feelings prevail.

On top of this, our culture places an unrealistic value on the pursuit of busyness. Society tells us that if we aren’t working on something, anything, we are just wasting time. Thus, if the reason we are saying “no” is so that we can find time to do something for ourselves or, perhaps, even manage to do “nothing at all” (gasp!), we feel unworthy.

Even when we finally muster up the courage to say “no” or “I can’t,” we then feel obligated to offer up an explanation to justify this unfavorable response. That’s why I’d like you all to consider for a moment that the word “no” is actually a complete sentence.

“No.” Period. End of sentence.

Saying the word “no” when someone asks you to do something, and then not following it up with the “why” may feel odd, rude even. The charged space that word leaves behind is palpable. Learning to say “no” and letting it hang out there all alone in its glory is a small kind of superpower.

Learning to say “no” and letting it hang out there all alone in its glory is a small kind of superpower.

Of course, the receiving party will likely fire back with a “why?” when you offer up your polite decline. (Yes, the word “no” is polite.) If this happens and you feel that stating “no is a complete sentence” is a bit harsh, try bundling up your courage with a little vulnerability. When pushed for a reason for some of my own uses of “no”, I have honestly and unabashedly responded with declarations like: “I am incredibly tired and mentally unable to take on another commitment.” Not only does this rarely, if ever, elicit a challenge, but my willingness to be raw and honest has, at times, inspired others to do the same or at the very least applaud my efforts.

Three Ways to Say No Without Using The Word “No”

If you feel rude or abrupt by simply stating “no,” there is good news here. There are many alternative ways to say “no” without ever uttering the word.

  1. One degree of departure from the word “no” would be saying “I can’t.”
  2. Two degrees of departure would be saying, “I’ll get back to you” and buying yourself enough time to give yourself a pep talk so that you can politely decline.
  3. Three degrees of departure would be saying yes to something else by creating alternatives, kind of like a “reverse-Jedi mind trick.” For example, someone recently asked me to purchase the refreshments for a large social justice organization gathering. I found myself hard-pressed to say “no” to this especially-pushy Executive Director, so I blurted out, “I can take care of the registration table that night!” By shifting the response from a negative one (something you can’t or won’t do) to something positive (something you can or are willing to do).

How to Create a Culture of Consent

Learning to say “no” is sort of like learning how to meditate—it’s a habit that you have to cultivate. The more you say it, the easier it gets. The easier it gets, the less guilty you feel. We need to set up personal boundaries around what we are and aren’t willing to accept for our own mental stability. And saying “no” doesn’t just mean declining invitations or saying “no” to extra work.

Setting up boundaries means recognizing that other people have boundaries, too. It means asking for consent (another habit to cultivate!) before unloading your day on someone else or entering into a heavy conversation at that casual dinner reception. It’s the kind thing to do and it sets the tone for others to follow. For example, I have a friend who is a fellow activist and I appreciate her dearly because she always asks me things like, “Hey, do you have the mental capacity for me to vent to you right now?” Or, “Are you okay with me asking your thoughts about the [fill in the blank news story] that happened the other day?”

Within the confines of your own boundaries, you can also feel free to draw a line in the sand if someone unleashes on you at a social gathering or a random meet-up by saying something like, “I am so grateful that you trust me with this story, however, I am at full mental capacity right now and I hope you can understand. Would you mind if we discussed something else tonight instead?” This approach actually trains individuals to ask you for consent in the future and helps them reclaim their own self-empowerment by giving them permission to do the same.  

How to Say “No” To Yourself

Learning to say “no” isn’t something you only need to do with other people, it’s something you need to learn to say to yourself. (Chances are, you’re the worst offender of all!)  Saying “no” to yourself means creating personal boundaries that will ultimately contribute to your own well-being over the long-term. Here are some ways to say “no” to yourself:

  • Saying “no” to that news app that sends you alerts multiple times a day
  • Saying “no” to checking the news multiple times an hour
  • Saying “no” to every single troll on your social media feed because you recognize that you are not going to change their minds and that you are simply depleting your own energy.
  • Saying “no” to checking your phone first thing in the morning.

See a theme here? Saying “no” to yourself often goes hand in hand with becoming aware of the times during your day when you’re acting on automatic pilot—reacting instead of choosing!

We have to be willing to unclutter these things from our lives that sap our energy in the small moments, where we’re not actively choosing to say “yes” and just allowing things into our lives. Creating new habits means understanding where you’ve become habituated–where you’ve lost touch with the moment.

When we take control of the ways we’re “automatically” saying “yes” to things we might otherwise say “no” to, we give ourselves room to say “yes” to things that really matter.

So how do you learn to choose your yeses? Here’s a quick practice to help you learn when to say “yes”:

Take a breath to consider what you are saying “yes” to? Ask yourself, “Is my heart in this? Am I doing it for the right reasons (what is my motivator)? Can I let this go and make room for something that matters more?”

At some point, you just might realize that it’s not always “something” that matters more. It’s taking the time to acknowledge, “I matter, too.”

In doing practicing to choose your yeses, we begin to filter out the things that matter least in exchange for the things that matter most. We begin to, in the words of Congresswoman Maxine Waters, “reclaim our time.” The more time and space you create to accomplish the things that align with your individual goals and purposes, the better you’re going to feel about being selfish with those yeses.