You may have always been the ‘nice’ one, but it’s time to start putting yourself first.
It’s a two letter word, and one of the first we learn as children. But the struggle to use ‘no’ well can last long into adulthood. Both sexes find it tough, but gender conditioning means women can find it particularly hard. From a young age, boys are encouraged to win but a good little girl is told to be ‘nice’.
Even in society today, traits associated positively with men are strength and power, whereas in a woman, kindness and compassion are valued more highly, according to the Pew Research Center.
But there is such a thing as being too nice. People pleasing. Caring even when it comes at your own expense. To respect myself, avoid burn out, and have honest relationships I had to learn to say no. Keeping these five things in mind helped.
It’s not a personal insult
Worried about feeling guilty, hurting people or having others feel rejected or judged, I ghosted dates or would stay out way too late with friends rather than say no to the third drink or the afterparty.
Once I realised that by saying no I wasn’t condemning them or their activity, but rather simply stating that their offer wasn’t what I wanted, for me, right now, I felt much better.
It wasn’t about them being right or wrong or good or bad people, it was just their request was not within my preferences. I’m allowed to prefer different things and so are they!
Now when I say no, I try and convey this as much as possible, wiping an apology grimace off my face. I stay stable and feel my feet on the ground, keeping my attention on the thoughts in my own head, rather than second guessing theirs. I focus on what I want and remind myself that it’s OK for different people to like different things.
You do not have to give reasons
The phrase “no I’m not able to do that” is your best friend here. There will be times when it’s appropriate to give a reason for saying no or turning down an offer (for example, if you’re too sick to make a work meeting). A lot of the time though, you don’t need to justify why you are unwilling or unable to do something. Practice saying no without giving reasons to small things - to the sugar bowl, or the biscuits.
Being an adult means being allowed to choose what you want and how to spend your time. I choose how I want to meet my responsibilities, and I have to look after my mental and physical health first, or it all goes to pot and I can’t help anyone.
If people want to understand why I am saying no, I may generously provide them with my reasons, but I do not allow myself to be disheartened if they then go on to undermine my explanation. It’s my life, and this is how I take care of myself. Just because someone cannot understand my reasons for doing something, doesn’t mean that my reasoning is faulty. I am allowed to change my mind - situations change, my emotional and physical state changes and sometimes I have to say no to things, in spite of my best intentions.
There are times when a request or offer is either too much or not to your taste. Say a friend asks you to help move house all weekend - the only weekend free you’ve had for months. Instead of delivering an outright no, or lying, saying you’re at a wedding in France and then dodging social media all weekend, you can offer to help for an hour, or whatever feels possible to you.
Then there are times when the intention is good, but the delivery is not how you’d like it. It could be someone offering you compliments that are intended well but make you feel uneasy. It could be your mum offering you advice about your job or relationship. It’s meant supportively, but it feels affronting.
In those cases, you can appreciate the intention, but ask for help or connection in the way you like it. For example, you might say to someone who offers unwanted flattery that you prefer to connect in a different way. If your mum wants to help, maybe explain how you do like to be supported - that you prefer to have fun together, go to the cinema or an exercise class and leave romance and work at home.
How other people think and feel is beyond your control
We all have our own sensitivities, beliefs, patterns and history. People may be offended or rejected by a no despite your best efforts to own your preferences, explaining your reasons whilst being clear, kind and offering alternatives where relevant. You’ve done your part, but they still go off on one or give you a funny look.
With family and friends, I was afraid in case my one time refusal damaged the relationship - resulting in disconnection. Sometimes it made things a little sticky for a bit, but I made the effort to get back in touch, to show that I was still interested in continuing the connection, despite not always being available. There were times when people didn’t want to know. That’s OK. They are allowed to make judgments and be resentful if they want to. It’s their life, their head, their thoughts, their feelings. Who am I to try and mess with those?
Sometimes I ghosted dates because I wanted to dodge the criticism that might come if I said no. Again, if that is how they want to feel, who am I to stop them? I might cease talking with them and I might walk away if I don’t want to listen, but that’s their experience and choice of response. I don’t have to take it, but neither is it my responsibility to stop it.
One of the biggest benefits of saying no I’ve found is that it helps you say yes meaningfully.
If, through fear or any other reason, you find it hard to say no, you may find life begins to get smaller and you feel ever tighter. I found, through my own inability to give a clear no, that I began to subconsciously and consciously constrict myself - avoiding any situations or people where I thought I might be confronted with an offer I would have to say no to.
Saying no, ironically, gave me the freedom to do more. Not only did I have the time to do the things I wanted to, I wasn’t always afraid of life offering me things I might need to turn down. No is always an acceptable answer.
Give a F**k: A Brief Inventory of Ways in Which You Can by Felicity Morse is published by Michael O’Mara Books (hardback, £12.99)