How to Say “No” Is the Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Learn

Shannon Hilson

It’s the first step on your journey to reclaiming your personal power.

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If you have trouble saying “no”, you’re hardly alone, as it’s not easy for most. Whether they admit it or not, human beings want to be liked by other human beings, even strangers. They want to be approved of by peers, family members, partners, and those they look up to even more. Being agreeable, accommodating, and helpful is a surefire way to do this, so it seems to make sense to comply with other people’s wishes and requests whenever possible. But what about the times it doesn’t make sense?

Saying “yes” all the time, in every situation, and to everyone is one of the quickest ways I can think of to spread yourself so thin, you’re no good to anyone, including those who matter the most to you and certainly to yourself. Saying “no,” on the other hand — clearly, firmly, and confidently — is one of the more valuable things you’ll ever learn to do. It’s also something I firmly believe everyone should be doing a lot more often for lots of reasons.

Do you even want to say “yes” as often as you do?

There’s nothing wrong with helping others or wanting to be there for people when they need you. But it’s worth asking yourself whether you mean “yes” anywhere near as often as you say it. I know I didn’t, and it bred some serious resentment for me after a while.

Like a lot of women my age, I grew up with others telling me in all sorts of different ways that my feelings, time, and resources weren’t as important as everyone else’s. Multiple people around me expected me to forget about what I wanted and to put them first. All the time and under every circumstance, even when it meant hurting myself or making my own life super hard. I was also supposed to take pride in that — being someone who took nothing for herself so others could have everything.

Let me tell you, I had a lot of feelings about going along with all that, but I can’t say with any honesty that pride was one of them. The fact of the matter is helping others should feel good. It shouldn’t leave you feeling tapped out, drained, taken for granted, or like you have nothing left of yourself for yourself. If that’s how you’re feeling, something’s wrong, and you need to rethink a few things.

Saying what you mean when you mean it is empowering.

To let other people decide for you how you should spend your time is to give up control over your own life, and that’s precisely what you’re doing if you never say “no.” Only you can say for sure whether you’re stretched too far at a given moment. Your time, labor, and emotional wellbeing are as important as anyone else’s, so start seeing them that way.

I still clearly remember the first couple of times I said “no” when being asked to do yet another favor I didn’t have room for in my schedule. The word felt awkward and uncomfortable in my mouth, but not necessarily in a bad way. It made me feel like I was finally taking control of some things — like I was finally behind the steering wheel for the first time instead of an involuntary passenger in my own car. I’ve been saying it loud and proud ever since.

It’s only natural to wonder who you are if you’re no longer the person who always says “yes” — the person everyone knows they can count on no matter what. You’ll wonder whether people will still like you. You’ll worry that saying “no” makes you selfish or rude. Then you’ll try it out a couple of times and see it’s usually not that big of a deal to people either way. Anyone who truly cares about you will be fine with you setting boundaries. Those who aren’t don’t have any business being part of your life anyway.

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Saying “no” more often ensures you can say “yes” when it truly matters.

The real problem with saying “yes” to every single request that comes your way, even if you genuinely want to, is there are only so many hours in a day. Sooner or later, you’ll have to say “no” simply because you’ve run out of time and resources to give away. Learning to prioritize means you’ll always have time for what genuinely matters to you, whether that’s a fantastic work opportunity or seeing a good friend through a tough time.

Work was one of the first areas of my life where I learned to do this consistently. When I first started writing for a living, I was still building a clientele and throwing a ton of spaghetti on the wall in the hopes that some of it would stick. It made sense to say “yes” to every halfway-decent project I was offered. Then I started making a name for myself, and my schedule started filling up as a result — way up.

I tried to keep saying “yes” to everything in the name of working hard and being a good service provider. I finally realized that I had to stop when I caught myself glancing at the clock one afternoon, wondering if I could spare a few minutes to use the restroom and pour myself a glass of water. That’s how ridiculously jam-packed my work schedule had become — so overfilled that whether or not I could spare 30–60 seconds to take a piss was debatable.

I got selective about the assignments I took on after that, and some awesome things started happening as a result. I started enjoying my work again the way I used to when I first started freelancing. For the first time in a while, my schedule was full of exciting projects that genuinely interested me instead of packed with tedious busywork. Despite working fewer hours, I was earning more money, too, as I was reserving my time for high-quality clients who willingly paid me what my services were worth. I had more room in my schedule to spend quality time with friends and loved ones I genuinely cared about, as well.

Decide where your boundaries should be and stick to them.

Just as it’s human nature to want to be liked, it’s also healthy, natural human behavior to test boundaries when one encounters them. If your life is full of people who take it for granted that you can always be counted on for a “yes,” even when it’s completely inconvenient for you, be prepared for this. Those people will test boundaries you set to see how serious you are about them.

Back in the early days of my freelancing career, I didn’t have set business hours or take regular days off. I didn’t need them — not when I still needed all the work I could get. That changed when my client roster and my schedule started filling up. Not only did I need some time to myself when I could switch off and do as I liked, but my clients needed to know when they could (and couldn’t) expect me to be available to them.

These days, I take weekends and holidays off as a rule. I also have set business hours that my clients are made aware of when we first start working together. I have a no-phone policy in place, as well, as I detest talking on the phone and refuse to do it anymore now that I’m in business for myself and by myself.

Clients know all of these things. But every so often, some guy will still try to demand that I take an “urgent” assignment on a Sunday or request some ridiculous turnaround time on something complicated and time-consuming. Or someone brand new will tell me I “have to” do business with them over the phone because that’s what they prefer, and “the customer is always right.” Mark my words, it will happen to you, too.

The key to teaching others to respect your boundaries is to have unflinching respect for them yourself. Don’t give up that Sunday — not even once. Don’t want to give out that phone number? Don’t do it. You don’t even have to be rude about it. Politely, but firmly, decline. If the person still has an issue, let them go and give their spot on your list to someone who values your time and assistance the way that they should.

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You don’t owe anyone else your free time.

One of the more valuable things I’ve learned to do over the years is to permit myself to leave blank space on my calendar when I feel like it. I got sick of the way other people assume that if you’re not immediately busy working or seeing to other must-do social obligations, that your time is up for grabs. It’s not, and anyone in your life who thinks otherwise needs to learn that.

Free spaces on your calendar don’t necessarily have to be filled. If anything, I’ve learned it’s wise not to fill every single available slot on your schedule, for work or otherwise. Sometimes appointments run long, or tasks take a lot longer than you anticipated. Every so often, you wake up not feeling that well and need some time to rest and recuperate a little. Occasionally opportunities that are important, or fun, or unusual come up unexpectedly, as well.

Leaving some extra wiggle room in your schedule lets you be flexible when you need to be and make changes when it makes sense. No one’s saying you can’t go ahead and have busier weeks if that’s what you honestly prefer. Just make sure you’re doing it because that’s what works for you and not because it’s what others think they’re entitled to from you.

Your time belongs to you, so how your days play out should be up to you, too. Being there for other people and being accommodating when you want to be and can afford to be is terrific. However, so is setting limits and getting comfortable with saying “no” as needed.

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Professional copywriter, blogger, critic, and journalist. Evergreen content on self-improvement, fitness, food, relationships, dating, freelancing, and productivity. Occasional hot takes on news, trending topics, movies, music, and television.

Monterey, CA
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