“Just” say no?

How good are you at saying no?

For quite some time, including most of my college years, the inability to say no was one of my major downfalls. It’s remains difficult for me to understand how such a simple utterance—just one measly syllable—can present such difficulties for so many people, and yet there it is. Somehow, “yes” (also only one syllable) rolls of the tongue so much more easily, often bringing with it unhappy consequences. Sometimes, I think that if we were able to fully appreciate the long-term detriments of saying yes, it would be much easier for us to endure the short-term drawbacks of saying no.

But I suppose if it were easy, everyone would do it.

The truth is that saying no is a very adult skill, and requires some degree of maturity before it can be exercised with any consistency. Part of the reason for this is that, despite the fact that we tend to interpret “no” to mean something particularly distasteful in our own minds, it can actually be quite versatile in its potential meanings. In other words, before it can be used properly, “no” needs to be understood.

Sometimes, “no” means “no thank you.”

For most people, this iteration is fairly easy. If someone is offering you something, it’s usually not too hard to take a pass if you’d rather go without. I do know some people for whom this would be difficult, though. For them, refusing an offer—whether of food, a favor, hand-me-downs, or unwelcome assistance—smacks of detachment, ingratitude, or superiority, all of which should be avoided at all costs. For others, though, saying no in such situations is a point of pride: I don’t need handouts from anyone. Thank you for thinking of me, but NO. Neither of these approaches is very healthy, though; in general, you should simply accept what you want and not what you don’t.

Sometimes, “no” means “I can’t.”

… which is exactly why it’s so hard for people to say in this setting. Let’s face it: no one wants to admit that they’re incapable of doing something, whether due to lack of time, lack of skill, lack of sleep, or lack of interest. When saying no means I just can’t help you or I just can’t come through on this one, we’re forced to admit a weakness that we’d probably prefer to hide. I do know some people who so horribly over-commit themselves that it allows them to abuse this response (i.e., I can’t do what I said I would), but these types don’t usually retain respect among their peers for long. Then again, maybe the rest of us are afraid of being perceived that way, making us hesitate to say no in the first place. The dirty little secret here is that the more we over-commit for fear of saying no, the more we risk saying no exactly as we feared.

Sometimes, “no” means “I won’t.”

Of course, “I won’t” is an entirely different statement from “I can’t.” Even for those of us for whom saying no is difficult, we’re likely to resort to “I can’t” before we ever get to “I won’t.” That’s because the former statement implies that something outside of ourselves is limiting us. We’d like to, of course, but we just can’t. It’s not our fault.

Saying “I won’t” removes all of that illusion. Imagine a very simple situation in which someone asks you for a bite of whatever you’re eating. Your first reaction is probably NO, but you can’t say “I can’t.” That would sound silly. After all, why can’t you? Nothing is stopping you… except yourself and what you want (or don’t want, as it were). If you work up the courage to say no, it will clearly mean “I won’t”—that is, I just don’t want to. And for many folks, that’s just not ok.

What is it that particularly turns people off to this response? I think it’s that no one wants to be perceived as selfish. We’re taught to share. We’re taught to care. Why tear down the whole façade? Wouldn’t it be better just to concede?

Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps not—perhaps it would actually be better to practice asserting yourself in the face of what may very well be an impertinent request for something that is rightfully yours. If that’s the case, saying yes might temporarily ingratiate you to the other person, but saying no would do much more good for your self-respect.

Sometimes, “no” means “I respect myself.”

In a small class of important cases, saying no means that you have standards—and perhaps even morals, if we’re still allowed to have those in this day and age. This is the classic Nancy Reagan “just say no” formulation: someone wants you to do something with them, or for them, and you know it’s just plain wrong. Maybe you know you could never respect yourself if you did it, or maybe you know that regardless of your self-respect, saying yes would in some way be damaging to your health or well-being.

Of course, the corresponding risk is being seen as uncool (Everyone else is doing it, they say), unloving (My last girlfriend never had a problem with it, he says), or just plain scared (What’s the worst that can happen, they tease). In fact, you should probably take these as your indicators: if you’re saying yes to avoid being uncool, unloving, or scared, then it’s probably more necessary than ever to say no.

Sometimes, “no” means “I refuse to put up with this any longer.”

As above, this connotation usually applies in serious situations, too—and for this reason, it’s possibly the most difficult “no” of all. You’ve been putting up with bad treatment for some time already, whether in an employment setting, a peer group, or a romantic relationship. Perhaps you feel that by your previous conduct, you’ve already given a tacit “yes.” You set the bar here, rather than there. You let her think that this treatment was acceptable for too long, and now it’s too late to change course. You’ve already let him do it too many times before; he’ll think you’re crazy if you say no now.

If you’re feeling trapped—and especially if you’re feeling hurt or abused—then saying no is not only an option, it’s a necessity. If you feel that way now, it doesn’t matter what you said before. In some cases, it doesn’t even matter that you said “I do.” No one has the right to take the joy from your life by making you wish every day that you could just say no.

In that case, it is always—not sometimes, but always—your right and your duty to say NO.

Nancy Reagan had one thing wrong: there’s no such thing as “just” saying no. Just because saying no may mean being true to yourself doesn’t mean it will be easy. But it does mean that if you can bring yourself to say that one little word, you’ll be very glad you did. “No” may be just one little word…

… but in some cases, saying no means the power to change (or even save) your life.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. For more information, visit http://www.childwelfare.gov/preventing/preventionmonth.

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