With so many things grasping for our attention and time, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and overburdened. But what would happen if we learned to simply say “no?”
Saying no is a radical form of self-care because it helps you prioritize your well-being over your obligations and relationships. Of course, there are deadlines to meet, conversations to have, and things to check off your to-do list. Everything can seem pressing and urgent, but boundaries help us prioritize what we need to do right now versus what we can do later when we’re less stressed, more energetic, and generally well.
If you’re overwhelmed from a long day of work, it may not be a good time to listen to other people talk about their problems. When you’re in the mood for a relaxing evening at home, it’s OK to decline an invite out for a night on the town. Boundaries help keep us connected without becoming enmeshed. In my work as a social worker, here’s what I’ve learned about the word “no,” and what saying it more often than not has done for me.
1. “No is a complete sentence”
Oprah said it—I’m just repeating it. When I first heard this simple statement, I wrestled with it for quite some time. I thought my “no” needed an explanation, or at least a counteroffer. I thought negotiating my “no” would make me seem nice and selfless, but I came to realize that “no” didn’t need to be nice or selfless—it just needed to be said.
As a Social Worker, I help others and do my part to enrich other people’s quality of life. I love what I do, but I noticed my work left me anxious and exhausted. I felt empty, depressed, and weary. Helping others was harming me because I wasn’t helping them out of my overflow, I was helping out of my deficit. I wasn’t giving myself all of the love, energy, and hard work I was putting into patients. Finally, I said “no.”
I still give my energy, my time, my hard work to those in my life, but I fill my cup first. I prioritize myself. I need to be as loving, present, and giving to myself as I am other people. I was only able to do that when I saw myself as worthy of the same love and attention I gave to others. No is assertive, definite, and unwavering. It draws a line in the sand and keeps it there—that makes people uncomfortable.
The ability to say no is less about being hard or cold and more about being assertive enough to stand up for yourself despite the pressure coming your way. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. I realized pretty early on in my career that I wasted a lot of time going back and forth with people about why I said no. Whenever my no was met with a rebuttal, I’d find myself in negotiation over my own boundaries. When I refused to engage beyond necessary, people learned to accept my answer as final. Once I state the boundary, I lovingly enforce it.
I love myself enough to know when I do not have the energy to give. I love them enough to not give them any less than my best. When I’m tired, sad, and stressed, I’m not the best friend, colleague, or sister. I say things like, “I would love to hear about your good news! It’s just right now, I don’t have the energy to give you the praise you deserve or celebrate with you like I really want to. Do you mind if I call you back later after I’ve had a chance to rest?” If there are other considerations to be made, I suggest them. If I have more of my time, effort, energy to give, then I offer it when it’s there instead of people demanding it when it was not.
If I have more of my time, effort, energy to give, then I offer it when it is there instead of people demanding it when it was not.
2. Saying “no” to others says “yes” to you
Saying no to others taught me how to say yes to myself. Every time I denied a request or declined a call, it was a small, revolutionary act of saying yes to me. I said yes to rest instead of talking to my friends on the phone. I said yes to my projects instead of helping out someone else when I didn’t have the resources to share. We’re always prioritizing other people. We say yes when we want to say no, or maybe, or not right now. Each time we say yes, we pour from our proverbial cup. Too often we’re pouring from a glass that’s already empty and then we wonder why we’re tired, upset, and resentful.
Saying no freed up a lot of time and energy. It’s more important now than ever to give ourselves room and space to breathe, relax, and just be. Maybe that looks like journaling or taking a relaxing bath. For me, it looks like turning my phone on DND and then dancing around my room. Sometimes, it looks like taking myself on a nice date or getting caught up on my rest. Whatever it looks like, you’ll have the space for it when you make the space for it.
As women, many of us are conditioned to consider everyone and everything else before ourselves and consider anything less than self-neglect as selfish. I learned that by prioritizing myself, I was able to be a better social worker, friend, lover, and more. So, now I only respond to calls and texts when I am fully present and able to properly engage. I do not take on more responsibility than I can actually handle. Don’t get me wrong, setting boundaries is hard, but running on empty is harder. One thing that made this easier for me was realizing that the world didn’t stop just because I didn’t answer. People are far more resilient and resourceful that we give them credit for. Their world does not spontaneously combust just because you took an evening for yourself, and if it does, setting boundaries will expose the health of your relationship.
Too often we’re pouring from a glass that’s already empty.
3. “No” teaches people how to love and respect us
Implementing boundaries may seem scary. No one wants people to think they’re mean, but what message do you send to people who are allowed to engage with you without any boundaries? Think of it like this: why would anyone who loves and respect you become upset when you love and respect yourself? Remember this, sis: anyone who has an issue with you setting a boundary is just someone who’s used to you not having any—and that in and of itself is problematic. Saying no forces us to really examine how we allow the people in our lives to treat us. It forces us to reflect on our relationships. Are they mutually beneficial or parasitic? Are the people we commit to committed to us? Beyond how we’re treated, who are we? Are we “helpers” and “healers”? Or do we perpetuate a cycle of co-dependency to validate our own worthiness? A lot of us overcommit because it makes us feel wanted, needed, and important. When we learn to see ourselves as worthy beyond our productivity, commitments, and over-involvements, the pressure to be all to all eventually subsides.
Saying no brings us closer to ourselves and further away from distractions. It brings us peace opposed to resentment. It brings us rest instead of weariness. “No” frees up our time. It creates space for our hobbies, families, or activities that bring us joy and peace. By clearing out the distractions, saying no leaves us with ourselves. Are we comfortable with that person? Do we even know ourselves? Saying no to others allows us to explore who we are, what we like, and what we need. I’ve learned that I need time after work to decompress. My family and friends have learned that too—seriously, they intentionally don’t call me for at least an hour or so after they know I’m off work. I loved and respected myself to give myself what I wanted and needed. The people around me love and respect me enough to give me that as well. By giving me that space, the quality of my relationships improved. By giving myself space, I improve.