Emotional literacy and emotional intelligence both start by being able to say no.
“No” is one of the shortest and simplest of words in almost any language, but so many people are afraid to use it.
Parents come to me repeatedly because their child has been using that little, powerful word too much. Why do we train it out of them? By the time we’re adults, many of us have learned that it’s easier to go along with others. We seek to please, to be liked, to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, or to prevent conflict, which results in people pleasing. So we say yes when we mean no. Or we say yes but drag our feet, taking our own sweet time doing what we agreed—or not doing it at all!
How to Set Healthy Boundaries
And if we were overpowered as children by an authoritarian parent or too strict a parent, we might say no even when we really mean yes. How confusing! Wouldn’t it just be simpler if we allowed everyone to say what they mean and mean what they say!?
The word “no” is one of the most misunderstood terms in the human language. It doesn’t matter if it comes from a toddler, teen, sibling, friend, co-worker, boss, or spouse. “No” is the most elementary boundary of all time. It merely means, “I am a separate person with unique experiences, perceptions, ideas, feelings, preferences, and priorities.” However, when we say no, our boundary requires children and adults alike to delay gratification, navigate through conflict, and deal with frustration. And therein lies the rub.
Related reading: “Speaking Your Truth Even When It’s Uncomfortable”
When “no” is overused, the child or person is often trying to say, “You are not listening. Please take me seriously and listen to me.” “No” deserves respect, whether it is inside you or outside. Befriend the word “no.”
How to Say No, Even When It's Difficult
How do you say no inside yourself? Those are called internal boundaries. We say no to negative self-talk or when we set a boundary for our inner critic. We pull in and say no when we want to vent our anger onto someone inappropriately. We say no to ourselves when we want that second piece of chocolate cake or spend money when we have committed to saving instead. We say no internally many times a day without even realizing it.
External boundaries are usually relationship-driven. When a friend wants to borrow our car, or our child wants a cookie right before dinner. Or perhaps we have a hectic day, and our spouse asks for a favor. The trouble lies when we say yes, and it’s best for us to say no.
Related reading: “Create a Healthy and Happy Life with Effective Boundaries”
For kind-hearted people, it can be harder to say no. Somewhere along the line, we got the wrong message and bought into the misconception that it's unkind to say no or to set a boundary. And often, setting a boundary to care for yourself is one of the kindest things you can do! When we set healthy boundaries, we have more time for the things we enjoy and we give and love freely.
Related reading: "Why You Should Stop Being a People Pleaser"
If you're one of those kind-hearted people, here are some phrases and different versions of saying no gracefully. They may feel more authentic and kinder to you.
“I’d love to help, and that won’t work for me.”
“I bet that would really help. I wish I could, but I’m going to need to say no.”
“Although I’d love to , not today.”
“It’s so hard for me to say no, but it’s the right thing for me.”
If you're still tempted to saying yes when you want to say no, try this quick little exercise.
Bring to mind someone you care about, then ask yourself, "Would I want this person to give up themselves for me? If something really wasn't right for them, would I want them to say yes?"
Your answer will reveal your truth.
When we care about people, we want them to do what's right for them. It's okay to say no. Pay attention and honor what you want and don’t want by setting a boundary. And reciprocate being cheerful and agreeable when someone says no to you. In the long run, there will be fewer power struggles, greater closeness, and increased happiness.
No, it’s not always easy saying no, but setting boundaries—especially when done lovingly—brings freedom and inner peace to those who do.
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