Saying no more often can leave more time and energy for the things you really want to say yes to. (Getty: John W Banagan)
It’s one of the shortest and most powerful words in the English language.
But for some of us, it can be incredibly difficult just to utter that one syllable — “no”.
It can mean we wind up doing stuff we actually don’t want to do: be it baking a cake for a kid’s fundraiser, covering a shift on a rare day off, or attending a social event you really don’t have the time or energy for.
If your New Year’s resolution involves saying no more often, you’re in luck: there is an art to saying it gracefully, and it’s something you can learn.
Why is it such a loaded word?
Saying yes to tasks you don’t have time for — or that aren’t actually your job — can leave you spread really thin at work. (Getty: Luis Alvarez)
There are lots of reasons we might say yes when we want to say no: fear of disappointing others, seeming rude or sparking conflict, or trying to put someone else’s needs first.
Brisbane-based clinical psychologist Giac Giacomantonio says many people feel pressured into doing what people expect of us.
“Usually we are raised in a way that says ‘as long as I’m doing what other people want, everything will be fine, and I must be being the right kind of loving person’,” he tells RN’s Life Matters.
“And of course a moment’s reflection shows that this is ridiculous.
“If I am ignoring myself and I don’t include self-love in the picture, that’s the less loving position.”
Not saying no when you want to can leave you stretched really thin — and Dr Giacomantonio says there’s a “hidden cost”, too.
“You never get to see what life feels like when you speak only from the truth of how you actually feel and what you actually want,” he says.
Self-care and saying no
Performance artist and activist Amao Leota Lu wrestles with saying no, but having recently had a kidney transplant, she has learnt to put her health first.
Amao Leota Lu has learnt to juggle her busy schedule as a performance artist and activist. (Supplied: Justin Ridler)
That can mean saying no — even when she wants to say yes.
Amao has learned that can be a powerful act of self-care.
“I think emotionally having been rundown to a point where I just could not take anymore, I was just thinking, ‘no, you need to stand your ground Amao. You need to have people appreciate you more’,” she says.
“It’s not about trying to tick all the boxes, it’s about just validating yourself to yourself and being comfortable with that and being honest and living authentically.”
Amao used to avoid saying no in her relationships, in cultural settings, or in work or advocacy settings because she felt that she might hurt or offend someone.
But in the long run, she was only hurting herself.
“What really hammered it home was the thing of self-care, and … saying no and realising, yeah, it’s OK to say no,” she says.
“I found I would also be hurting myself as well mentally, and that takes its toll because you’re trying to please people but it’s almost like this facade that you’ve put on.”
And Amao is not alone.
Many listeners of RN’s Life Matters also shared their struggles with saying no.
“I’ve struggled to say no in the past because I don’t like disappointing people and I also dislike confrontations,” one says.
“I think it’s got me into trouble because I’ve said yes to too many things and spread myself too thinly and that leads to disappointment,” says another.
“I’ve struggled to say no in the past because I’ve wanted to prove my worth to my new employees,” reveals a third listener.
Experiment ‘slowly’ with saying no
So has Amao since discovered a graceful art for saying no?
“Yeah, definitely, with a lot of food and a lot of laughing and a lot of love,” she says.
Dr Giacomantonio says it’s definitely possible to say no and still be polite.
“The attitude we take to the problem is the most important thing,” he says.
And he has some advice: as we try to say no more, it’s important to take it slow.
“The biggest danger if we try to tackle this issue in ourselves is that we just become another [person] in a list of people who put too much pressure on ourselves to do something,” he says.
“So, I think people need to experiment slowly and at the rate they feel comfortable with, with actually saying no when they want to, and then seeing what happens.”
Note: This aticle is about the simpler day-to-day moments when we struggle to say no, not more complex situations involving consent and boundaries.