How I learned to say NO

Googling “how to say no” brings up a lot of advice articles, with tips for how to say it politely, and a few really basic things about why it’s hard to say no… but I found those somewhat lacking. For me it was never a matter of finding the right words, it was about really genuinely understanding why the fuck it’s been so hard, and actually finding solutions for the underlying causes.

Why is it so hard to say no?

Saying no feels like rebellion

Rebelling as a kid meant I’d be in trouble, and being in trouble was scary, therefore saying no was scary. Being yelled at for any reason gave me nightmares for years after I got out of school.

Many adults back then were ridiculous and I didn’t want to do as they said because their demands were stupid. But I did them anyway out of fear of the consequences. I never learned anything about setting boundaries while growing up, because kids don’t get to set boundaries with adults. It’s just not allowed. That’s the kind of thing that gets you yelled at, and as a Highly Sensitive Person, being yelled at was pure torture.

Nowadays, I’m apparently an adult now, and there are a lot of people I actually like and don’t want to rebel against. But because I still had the association of saying no being linked to rebellion, I had these weird reactions like:

“I like this person and I don’t want to rebel against them… therefore I will agree to everything they request of me, because I like them and stuff”

… which got me into some pretty awkward situations that really weren’t right for me at all.

Some of those situations were clients I agreed to work with that I really shouldn’t have. They were like, “Hey, can you do this thing for me?” and I was like “Yeah, sure I can”… because I could do it. I was capable of it. That didn’t mean I wanted to! But that wasn’t what they asked, so…

I got in over my head, agreeing to this and that person’s request, and working with multiple clients at the same time, many of whom can’t make up their minds about how they want things, and constantly ask me to change and redo shit, and… it was a nightmare.

Other situations were actually relationships I got into simply because “well, he seems like a nice guy, and I like him as a person, therefore I have no particular reason to say no to him”. That is, apparently, not how relationships actually work, but I was pretty clueless at the time. It took many years for me to eventually figure out I’m actually a lesbian.

Just because I can do something, doesn’t mean I have to do it! Just because I can’t come up with a “good argument” against doing something, doesn’t mean I should do it… actually, it’s the other way around – if I’m going to do a thing, I should have at least one good reason to do it, and the most important reason should be because I ACTUALLY WANT TO. That’s the only reason I need.

It’s also the only reason I need for saying no. I can say no to something simply because I don’t particularly feel like doing it. If the thought of doing the thing doesn’t “spark joy”, that’s a perfectly valid reason not to do it. This is the point where the articles about all the polite ways of saying no can come in handy, if that’s important to you. But really, it doesn’t need to be some complex thing. “No” is a complete sentence. And honestly, if the person asks “Why not?” in a pushy or nagging kind of tone, that’s a red flag. Maybe that person needs to fuck off out of my life if they’re going to have the audacity to be pushy about something I already said NO to.

I’m not responsible for their feelings if they don’t like the fact that I said no.

People-pleasing

Learning to say NO and learning to stop people-pleasing were very closely linked for me.

I was always the odd one out growing up, always the strange pariah doing strange things and being unable to do normal things in normal ways.

Even as an adult, I felt like I needed to justify everything I did. I had to have an explanation for everything. I had massively long imaginary conversations with people in my head, where I’d argue about my point of view, and they’d argue theirs, and I’d have to find a way to convince them that my view is acceptable. Not even right, just acceptable. Just okay. Just valid enough to be allowed to exist.

It was really hard, trying to make my views seem acceptable to others. There’s always some argument I can come up with against everything I believe. I learned later that the voices in my head that argue against everything I say and do are called the “inner critic”, and it’s a trauma thing.

I would just go along with what other people wanted because I was so out of touch with my own feelings, I didn’t really even know much about what my own preferences even were. And even when I did know, I thought that if someone else thought I was wrong about something, I probably was. Because I was the abnormal one, after all, I never did quite figure out how to be normal.

And I never will. Because fuck being normal! I mean, have you seen normal people? Do you really wanna be like them? I sure don’t!

It’s hard for me to pinpoint an exact turning point for when I stopped giving a shit about what people thought about me. But it involved actually accepting that I might lose people. People might stop liking me. I might lose friends. I started to like myself enough that I knew I’d be okay if that happened. Even if I lost all my friends, I’d be my own friend. I’d be the bestest damn friend I’d ever have, so it’d be fine if everyone else went away.

Ironically enough, that was a time when I made MORE friends. I started being more genuinely me, and some people were drawn to me more because of that.

I’ve accepted that I don’t need to be acceptable to people. People can think I’m fucked up and weird, and that’s okay. Those are the people I’m by far the most likely to say NO to. I don’t need their approval. I don’t need them to like me. I don’t need to do anything to prove myself to them. They can even hate me for all I care.

If they ask me why I do something the way I do, I can simply say I don’t feel like explaining it to them. I do not owe them any explanations. They are not my people, and I don’t have energy to waste on them.

“No, sorry, I don’t have enough time to do that”

I used to feel like if I have ANY free time at all, it means I have time to do that thing someone asked me to do, so I can’t say “Sorry, I don’t have time” as a reason for saying no to something. I was taking it too literally. Having time to do something and having the energy to do something are different, and having energy is actually really important!

I think the reason I developed this particular inner critic bullshit was because of school, and homework in particular. The teachers were always going on about “being productive” all the time, and “time-management” and they acted as if schoolwork was our entire reason for existence and that we should prioritize it above all else. That made me feel guilty about having free time. It made me feel like other people owned my free time, like it wasn’t even mine. My dad also amplified this shit even more by acting like my hobbies aren’t important unless they’re something that I can make money with. Stupid fuckers, they’re all wrong and dumb.

I need my free time. I need a lot of it. It is MY free time, to spend as I choose, even if that means doing absolutely nothing.

So I can say “No, sorry, I can’t do that thing, I don’t have time”, even if I’m busy doing absolutely nothing.

Doing absolutely nothing is a perfectly valid way for me to spend my time!

I’ve repeated that a lot because it’s important, and this was a really difficult thing for me to accept. I still struggle with it sometimes.

Also, even when it looks like I’m doing nothing, I’m actually not. There’s a lot of stuff going on in my brain in the background all the time. Processing trauma, thinking up creative ideas, resting.

REST IS IMPORTANT! You will burn out if you don’t get enough rest!

Also, check your environment. If you constantly feel pressured by the people around you, it’s quite possible that you’re surrounded by jerks, and that there’s nothing wrong with you at all.

Play until it’s time to rest, then rest until it’s time to play… and if what you’re doing doesn’t feel like play or rest, give yourself permission to not do it.
-Martha Beck

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