For many of us, saying “no” is difficult and uncomfortable. Whether it’s a social invitation, another work project, or one more holiday obligation, it’s often easier to say “yes.” We think we should be able to take it all on without complaint, and as naturally social creatures, we care about what others think.
Unfortunately, the tendency to be a people pleaser often leads to feelings of being stretched too thin. It can also lead to resentment and bitterness. When we say yes to everyone else, it’s hard to ensure our own needs are being met. When we fill our to-do lists with commitments to other people, it’s hard to find the time for the things we actually want to do. Plus, a jam-packed schedule means lots of opportunities for stress without the time you need to process it all.
Coming up with reasons not to say no is easy: fear of conflict, fear of disappointing someone, fear of missing out. But saying no can also be a source of power.
“The ability to communicate no really reflects that you are in the driver’s seat of your own life,” said Vanessa M. Patrick, an associate professor of marketing at the C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston. “It gives you a sense of empowerment.” So how do you harness the power of no and start saying it in a way that doesn’t feel rude or disingenuous?
Imagine different scenarios and then practice saying no either by yourself or with a friend. This will help you build your confidence
You don’t have to answer right away, even if it’s something you’ve readily said yes to in the past. If you need to, ask if they can email or text you the details so you can think about it without the added pressure of needing to make an immediate decision. But don’t forget to be respectful of the other person’s time as well.
Depending on your relationship, you might want to offer an explanation, but you never have to give an excuse or justification for your no. Professor Patrick’s research found that saying “I don’t” as opposed to “I can’t” helped people more easily extract themselves from unwanted commitments.1 For example, saying “I don’t have time in my schedule,” instead of “I can’t make it work,” implies your decision isn’t up for debate and uses more self-empowering language. In the end, being honest and direct is always your best bet.
Without a clear vision of what you want out of life, it’s hard to figure out what’s worth saying yes to—and spending too much time doing things you don’t actually want to be doing can often lead to emotional burnout. The problem is, it’s not always easy to identify what those priorities are so you can live accordingly. Here’s a simple exercise you can do every six months to check in with yourself and ensure your behaviors support your priorities.
First, using a notebook, notecards, or even an app on your phone, spend no more than 20 minutes writing down all the things that you think are important to you—things like love, family, work, art, happiness, money, time, stability, etc. After the time is up, spend another 20 minutes reflecting on all the things you wrote down and choose the top five things that bring you the most joy and fulfillment. Next, spend yet another 20 or so minutes writing down what you spend most of your time doing during the week. Lastly, compare what you do with what you value: are you spending your time doing things that support your values and goals? If not, it might be time to re-evaluate what you’re saying “yes” to and start employing the power of “no.”
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1. Patrick, Vanessa M., and Henrik Hagtvedt. “I Don’t” versus “I Can’t”: When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behavior." Journal of Consumer Research 39, no. 2 (2012): 371-81. doi:10.1086/663212.