Why “NO” is a complete sentence

4 Mar

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

With apologies to Nike, I’d like you to consider this new maxim: “Just don’t do it!”  Don’t say YES to every request, demand, invitation, obligation, favour or opportunity out there.  Oh, you can go ahead and say YES to things you really love (good coffee, a bike ride, an afternoon nap) but for anything that you really don’t absolutely need to do, there’s a useful word for you to contemplate using, and that word is NO! 

But for many of us who may have trouble saying NO to others, we learn to somehow “normalize” over-extending ourselves, exhausting ourselves, pushing ourselves as we continue to say YES when we really want to say NO.  Many of us even brag about how utterly overwhelmed, overworked, overcommitted and stretched thin we are, as if answering “Crazy busy!” to a simple “How are you?” greeting is somehow a mark of honour!

Some of us may, in fact, learn this word NO only out of enforced necessity as we recuperate from a cardiac event. As another heart attack survivor wrote me:

“I have more balance in my life now – because I have to!”

Here’s a tip: don’t wait until illness forces you to wise up.

There’s nothing quite like a traumatic and life-altering crisis to motivate oneself to take stock. If I do this, will it be good or bad for my health? What do I really want to do, and why aren’t I doing more of it?  What don’t I want to do anymore – and why am I doing any of it?

To guide us along as we begin practicing how to say NO when we mean NO, let’s review this useful list of nine practices to help us say the word, offered by Peter Bregman last month in the Harvard Business Review:

  • Know your NO.  Identify what’s important to you and acknowledge what’s not. If you don’t know where you want to spend your time, you won’t know where you don’t want to spend your time. Before you can say NO with confidence, you have to be clear that you want to say NO. All the other steps follow this one.
  • Be appreciative.  It’s almost never an insult when people make requests of you. They’re asking for your help because they trust you and they believe in your capabilities to help. So thank them for thinking of you or making the request/invitation. Don’t worry – this doesn’t need to lead to a YES.
  • Say NO to the request, not the person.  You’re not rejecting the person, just declining the invitation. So make that clear. Let them  know what you respect about then — maybe you admire their work, or recognize their passion or generosity. Don’t fake this — even if you don’t like the person making the request, simply being polite and kind will communicate that you aren’t rejecting them.
  • Explain why.  The particulars of your reason for saying NO make very little difference. But having a reason does. Maybe you’re too busy. Maybe you don’t feel like what they’re asking you to do plays to your strengths. Be honest about why you’re saying NO. (Carolyn’s note: personally, I have often found that simply saying NO is often quite enough all by itself, e.g:  “Are you available on Friday to do ___?” requires merely a “NO, I’m not!” response – no reason required).
  • Be as resolute as they are pushy. Some people don’t give up easily. That’s their prerogative. But without violating any of the rules above, give yourself permission to be just as pushy as they are. They’ll respect you for it. You can make light of it if you want (“I know you don’t give up easily — but neither do I. I’m getting better at saying NO!”)
  • Practice. Choose some easy, low-risk situations in which to practice saying NO. Say NO when a waiter offers you dessert. Say NO when someone tries to sell you something. Go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and say NO out loud ten times. It sounds crazy, but building your NO muscle helps.
  • Establish a pre-emptive NO. We all have certain people in our lives who tend to make repeated, sometimes burdensome requests of us. In those cases, it’s better to say NO before the request even comes in. Let that person know that you’re hyper-focused on a couple of things in your life and trying to reduce your obligations in all other areas. If it’s your boss who tends to make the requests, agree upfront with her about where you should be spending your time. Then, when the requests come in, you can refer to your earlier conversation.
  • Be prepared to miss out. Some of us have a hard time saying NO  because we hate to miss an opportunity. And saying NO always leads to a missed opportunity. But it’s not just a missed opportunity – it’s a tradeoff. Remind yourself that when you’re saying NO to the request, you are simultaneously saying YES to something you value more than the request. Both are opportunities. You’re just choosing one over the other.
  • Gather your courage. If you’re someone who is used to saying YES, it will take courage to say NO, especially if the person asking doesn’t give up easily. You may feel like a bad friend. You might feel like you’re letting someone down or not living up to expectations. Maybe you’ll imagine that you’ll be seen or talked about in a negative light. Those things might be the cost of reclaiming your life. You’ll need courage to put up with them.

And finally, it turns out there may even be a new word to describe those of us who have trouble saying no, according to the book That Should Be a Word by Lizzie Skumick, who shares this word:

Canvict – (CAN-vikt), n. “One imprisoned by inability to say no.”

.NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about saying YES when we mean NO in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2017).

Q:  How hard is it for you to say NO?

See also:

19 Responses to “Why “NO” is a complete sentence”

  1. Beth Gainer June 28, 2013 at 5:10 am #

    What an excellent post. Unfortunately, I’m the one who always said “yes” and learned the hard way that this was not the best approach — when I was diagnosed with cancer.

    Then I learned to say “no” to things that were toxic to me, and to scale down all the high expectations I had of myself.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas June 28, 2013 at 5:24 am #

      Thanks so much, Beth – there’s nothing like a life-altering health crisis to suddenly make the word NO look attractive!


  2. Nicola March 5, 2013 at 12:20 am #

    One of the most liberating things I’ve ever done was to have a ‘Year of Saying No’ a few years back.

    While I had a wonderful life, I realised it was full of all sorts of things that I hadn’t consciously chosen to be involved with; I had simply said Yes when asked. One by one I pulled out of various commitments and practiced saying No when asked to fill the space with something else. It was a revelation to discover that I could still be interesting company and my identity didn’t hinge on wearing a wide array of ‘hats’. It has proved to be an invaluable exercise in this period following my SCAD/MI (Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection/Myocardial Infarction).

    Thanks for your blog Carolyn. Your posts are always enlightening.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas March 5, 2013 at 6:37 am #

      Wow! Love that Year of Saying No concept, Nicola. Bet you got really good at not letting others fill in your calendar for you.


  3. June Peterson March 4, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

    Wonderful post! I was just reminded this past weekend by my hairdresser that I too need to learn how to say NO! Reading this, I can relate. I need to try harder and put myself first sometimes. I am always a YES person but the body is saying NO!

    Thanks for sharing this!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. nancyspoint March 4, 2013 at 7:40 am #

    Hi Carolyn, I agree we need to practice saying no, but more than this, we need to “practice” not feeling guilty about saying no. Thanks for the great tips.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas March 4, 2013 at 7:44 am #

      Oh, good point, Nancy. I think that’s why I bristled at Peter’s #4 point “Explain why”. Absolutely no need to have a reason (which then invites the judgement of others on whether the reason is good enough!) Doesn’t matter: no means no and that’s all there is to it. No guilt required!


      • Kathleen March 4, 2013 at 8:40 am #

        I agree with you 100%. Some people do judge reasons (as well as the reason-giver), but what’s worse, in my experience, is when people then proceed to treat my reasons as an organizational challenge “but couldn’t you instead…?” and present enough alternative scenarios to make my head spin.

        And that discussion would open up my entire life, which is way more than the relationship merits. What works best for me is a calm, firm: “Oh thank you so much, but that’s not possible.” Repeated as needed.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Carolyn Thomas March 4, 2013 at 8:53 am #

          Thanks Kathleen – I think this is especially common among those who are not used to hearing us say NO, for any reason, so the tendency to try to wear us down (through guilt, intimidation, whatever works) is strong.


  5. Barbara Bronson Gray March 4, 2013 at 7:35 am #

    Great post. I would also add just one thing to your excellent list: learn to say “No” to your healthcare provider if what he or she is suggesting doesn’t seem right for you or if you need more time to consider the situation before committing to a new medication, test, procedure or treatment.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Deb March 4, 2013 at 6:01 am #

    This is SO me and something I’ve been working on for 2 years since I’ve had my SCAD/MI.


    Liked by 1 person

  7. annmercyme March 4, 2013 at 5:01 am #

    I have always been a yes person. After my heart attack I found it important to learn to say no to many things in order to take care of my health. I still find it difficult but easier as I practice and believe that I am doing it for the right reasons.

    Thank you for the reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas March 4, 2013 at 6:46 am #

      Hello Ann – it’s hard to turn around a lifetime habit of saying YES. The more we say NO, the better we’ll get at doing it.


      • HibernationNow March 4, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

        I think that feeling comfortable with saying “No” also comes naturally with age. I never felt comfortable in my thirties saying no, I wanted everybody to like me. The wisdom of being in my 50’s is the gift of freedom: to say no, to not worry what people think, and to think about yourself. Sometimes if it’s an uncomfortable situation, I always pause and say “I’ll get back to you on that.”

        Your friend,
        Peachy Keen Jr.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Carolyn Thomas March 4, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

          Absolutely right, Peachy. Saying YES to everything when we’re younger means we don’t have to rock the boat or make somebody not “like” us! Sheeeesh….


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