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How to say no

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Portrait of beautiful girl outdoors. Young hipster woman in the city traffic learning to say no, self empowerment

Image: Kseniia Perminova/Shutterstock

For as fast as toddlers pick up on saying no, you’d think people would have it down to an art once they’re grown. But many of us dread having to saying it, preferring to juggle schedules and bend over backwards instead of dealing with someone else’s anger or disappointment.

Sometimes you’re happy to go the extra mile for a friend or co-worker; it’s how you build relationships and communities. But saying yes should be it’s own reward, whether it’s a roll in the hay, charitable volunteering, or a favor for your boss. If saying yes feels like a burden, and the only thing you’re getting out of the exchange is avoiding guilt, it’s time to start telling people no.

Here’s a secret that should be obvious: people who are worth your time understand that you can’t do everything and respect your decisions. They may be disappointed that you can’t work on a project or stand up in their wedding, but they won’t try to punish you passively or actively. They will like you just the same. This is true of bosses, friends, family, significant others, and potential significant others. Those who habitually do otherwise will never be satisfied, even if you always say yes to them.

If you need to break the habit of unquestioningly saying yes to everything, try saying no to small, low-stakes things, like choosing a different restaurant or movie instead of going along to get along. It sounds cheesy, but you can even practice in the mirror out loud if you have to.

Saying no to reasonable people is simple. Try something like, “Thank you for thinking of me for [project, event, road trip], but I don’t have the [time, energy, money] right now. Let me know how it goes!” Don’t be hesitant; don’t give a stream of excuses; don’t sound guilty; and don’t try to buy time if you know you can’t/won’t do the thing. Not just because it’s unnecessary, but also because it’s confusing. It’s like responding “maybe” to a Facebook event. How the hell does a host plan for that? A firm, clear no makes things easier for everyone.

Saying no to a reasonable person in the romantic sphere is similarly simple. For example: “Thanks for asking me out, but I think it’s best to break things off. I had fun talking with you last time, but I just don’t feel a spark. Take care.” Or if things are moving faster than you’d like: “I really like you and like spending time with you, but I’m not ready to [get physical, go to your bondage club, get a dog together, go on vacation with your mom, etc.]”

Reasonable people may be disappointed, but they’ll understand and won’t hold it against you. They will hold it against you if you tell them yes while hating every minute of doing what you agreed to because you’ve decided to transfer your guilt of saying no to the asker for not reading your mind. People are allowed to ask for things and you’re allowed to say no to them. They might not be able to help their disappointment, but they can control how they express it. That’s on them.

I know the world isn’t perfect, dear reader, and you will need to deal with unreasonable people in your life. Some of them may even be family members or friends, and each “no” you give will be met by a wall of complaints and attempts to (il)logic away your perfectly acceptable refusal.

You can still be gracious and kind, but you can’t give them an opening.

For example: “Thank you for inviting me to your Fabergé egg swap party, but I can’t make it.” Don’t give a reason because reasons are for reasonable people. Most people understand that Fabergé is rare, expensive, and you may not have any you want to swap. An unreasonable person presented with a reason will talk about the one time they paid more than they wanted to at happy hour so why can’t you do the same? They’ll say your reason is no reason at all. Why can’t you be a [good friend, supportive sibling, team player, etc.]?

If they ask for a reason, say it just won’t work out. They will then wheedle, whine, and rage and try to prod at your tender points like devotion to family or your insecurities. You then get to say the most infuriating non-apology in the world: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

It’s true, though! You’re sorry they feel that way, but you’re not sorry for telling them no and you’re not sorry for not doing the thing. You get to establish emotional distance, and prevent them from drawing you into their alternate universe.

This applies to pretty much any situation, whether it’s not sharing a roof for the holidays, not attending a funeral, or not having sex with someone. Your reasons are good enough, but they will never admit that. Remind yourself that even saying yes will not make them happy enough to be invested in your happiness, as well.

The good news is that most people who spend time with you want you to be happy and would rather you say no than plaster a smile on your face and suffer through whatever they want. People who care even marginally about your wellbeing understand that you have limits and want you to say no when you reach them.

Crystal is a questioner of many things and a writer of essays and fiction. She loves ballet and opera almost as much as football.