Saying “no” is hard. Before I started saying “no,” I hadn’t thought much beyond the actual moment of just saying “no.” I am now realizing that saying “no” can be a thing of beauty. These days, I try & think of saying “no” as an art form.
Like any creative act, how you say “no” should look unique to you. I know from experience that it takes practice, an openness to spiritual transformation, but the pros I have received in return are HUGE. If you are exhausted a lot, if you feel like you never get enough done, if you wish you had more downtime, and/or if you wish you had more time for the things that really matter in your life, I hope these suggestions are helpful and, most importantly, motivating for you. This is part a step-by-step guide, part thought-work around saying-no.
A word about power/identity. People of color, queer people, women, and especially people at the intersections of these positions are often underrepresented and bear the brunt of representing the entire community of which we are a part, being in/formal mentors to others, and other aspects of minority stress. Despite a repudiation of “identity politics” (a term that was born out of a resistance to queer people of color speaking their truths in the early 00s) identities are inherently political, and we all perform different amounts of representational labor in our workplace, whether we are aware of it or not. Learning to say no is especially important for people in minoritized subject positions.
The Art of Saying “No” A Practical Guide
- Think of saying “no” is saying “yes” to what you’ve already committed to, or what you want to commit your finite time and energy to, whether it’s as epic as embarking on an art practice or as discrete as helping a friend who needs support.
- Come up with a list of two or three phrases that feel authentic to you (how you talk) that will buy you time that you really need to think about if/how to commit. Some examples might be, “that sounds really rad, can I get back to you?” If it’s something you know well, you might offer “I’m trying to be careful about what I take on but I’ll get back to you in a couple days.” It might sound wishy-washy to you, and our heteropatriarchal society tells us that questions are “weak,” but I think that’s a sexist and outdated idea. If we are all “humans,” then we have the right to treat people like our co-conveners in this matrix called life (whether or not they see or treat us that way), and the vast majority of people (especially those you want to say maybe or yes to) will appreciate being invited into your process. The proof of this is in how often people immediately say, “of course,” when you ask for time to think about it. People sense honesty, it’s a vibration that feels good.
- Make sure you want to say “no” first. It may sound obvious, but when beginning the “art of saying no” journey, many of us are prone to kneejerk “no’s” that actually hinder our ability to considering whether and how we want to get involved in something. The best thing to do when you’re not sure whether to say “no” is nothing. Give yourself time (at least a day) to think about it. Sometimes there are alternatives to saying “no” that turn out be more what you want and if that is true then you bypass the energetic blowback that saying “no” can manifest. The anxiety you feel is your own resistance to creating space in your life. Steven Pressfield says we feel Resistance to anything that is for our long term good (The War of Art); even if you think your anxiety is being caused by other people being pushy or anxious, it is also your own resistance offering you an opportunity to move through it. As such, it should be treated with respect and love. This is the spiritual journey you are on. Give yourself time to work through the feelings and thoughts that arise when someone asks you to do something that makes you anxious. If you can imagine yourself being involved in a minimal way that feels good to you, offer that. (E.g. helping to publicize rather than co-host an event). If the answer is a real “no” for you, move on to the next step!
- Why does saying “no” feel so bad sometimes? Honestly, I could spend an entire other blog writing about this but in short, many of our “no’s” weren’t respected when we were younger, many of us weren’t even taught to respect our own boundaries. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter why. Everyone but assholes and sociopaths has a hard time saying “no.” It means you are a good person who cares about other people.Here are some ideas for moving through yucky feelings: A. Take a dance, martial art, circus, or otherwise playful and physically active class, a long walk, a swim (cold water is ideal), anything that involves moving your body. Liz Gilbert says that for us to move through something we can move our bodies to help it move through us. B. Talk to an unconditionally loving friend about your conundrum. The love they mirror back to you will help guide you toward that lovingness toward yourself as you make this decision. C. Distract yourself for a while! Avoid being by yourself and stewing on the situation. Thrift shop, bake a loaf of bread, do something that will get you out of your head. Sometimes there is a real need for your labor, but that doesn’t trump your own judgment of what you can take on. It is nobody’s job to decide what you take on but you. When I was having trouble setting boundaries at work, I made up a song that goes, “I don’t care about you, don’t love you, I don’t care about you.” (Lol). It had a catchy tune to it, and I sang it whenever I felt the fourth-grade version of me come out and want to please whatever person was in position of authority or judging me in that moment. Authority is something people assume (as in take on), but it is also something we give. Whatever helps you take back that ownership over yourself, go for it!
- Realize that, until you’ve had a bit of practice, you will be bad at saying “no.” You have to be bad at something before you get good at it. Perfectionists have a hard time being bad at stuff, which seems obvious but I say it because this means (sadly/ironically) people who are thoughtful and sensitive and trying to be good people are harder on themselves around spiritual growth as well (while many of us work really hard on it). Whatever feelings of inadequacy and shame come up when you set a boundary is the stuff that is getting ready to clear, like bile rising before you vomit (sorry, but it’s a good analogy), so be happy that what is rising up is getting ready to transform into another energy!
- Saying no is an amazing teacher of what our shame looks and feels like, for everyone. That’s why only sociopaths or very emotionally unavailable people have no problem saying “no” and don’t have/choose to learn how to do it. Whatever comes up around “no” will look like things from your past that you are getting ready to clear. It is another fucking growth opportunity that exceeds that situation that you/others think it is about.
- The actual hard part about saying no, is the blowback that can come afterwards from those we say “no” to, which is why it is so important to take a pause to figure out if and how to say “no.” Maybe you are dealing with structural inequities built upon centuries of injustice that occlude people’s ability to see their own responsibility within systems of oppression and contribute to them making you responsible for their problems. Maybe (surely) they are on their own rocky road to learning to say “no.” Maybe they’re just having a bad day. Whatever it is, people resistance to your saying no is actually about them. They may think it is about you, but, more often than not, your “no” is lighting up their own resistance to learning to say it. If it helps, you can think of people who are upset at you as really upset at your ability to protect your time, and also perhaps as having the gendered, raced, classed, and/or able-bodied privileges to ignore their own boundaries that they haven’t yet grappled with.
- Ableism is real. Capitalism makes us believe our worthiness is in our productivity but we are not machines. To flip a script, people are not corporations. When I got sick with Lyme’s in 2017, it was the hardest thing I ever had to go through physically and also the most incredible teacher to me in learning to set boundaries. I was grateful for every disability activist and theorist I had ever engaged with because the blowback from my chronic illness was intense and I wasn’t physically able to deal with the energy people threw at me. If you are feeling sick, either emotionally, physically, or spiritually, you could probably use more and gentler “no’s” in your life, and it is critically and vitally important that you learn how to say it for your own health. We will all become disabled. Learning to say “no” now will help you stay healthier later.
- Sometimes people run a bossy, authoritative, or condescending (or some combo thereof) energy and these people are particularly hard to say “no.” It can help to realize that these people are often running on someone else’s energy (often one of their parents’). Remember that genuine leadership never feels bossy or manipulative. These people are on a different spiritual path than you, but they are definitely on one around saying “no.” Give yourself credit and respect for being honest with yourself about where you are at, because not everyone is. If you are dealing with someone who runs bossy energy so as to never feel vulnerable, to try and feel in control in this uncontrollable life, they are never going to value or affirm your honesty with yourself or with them. Practice affirming yourself rather than expecting that from them. I avoid these people unless I absolutely have to engage with them, and, in that case, I’ve found that the best way around it is through it: be your positive, sunny self no matter what, and demonstrate that wherever they are at is fine but it’s not going to change your demeanor. This is easier said than done, and don’t beat yourself up if someone trips you up. We can’t grow into our new selves if we don’t spin out into a bigger, wilder space first.
- You can’t be too kind when saying “no.” Don’t underestimate the power of words—even if you aren’t feeling powerful when you say it, all words usher in their own power, and if you say it harshly, it will come off more strongly than you intended. Unless someone is an insensitive lug and they didn’t get it the first two times, saying it as kindly as you can will also make it easier to forgive yourself if/when shame comes to visit you afterwards. Perhaps the ultimate lesson for me has been to reframe saying “no” as a form of modeling. Say “no” to others the way you’d like to be said “no” to!
- The ultimate manifestation of your art of saying no will look and sound genuine to you. It will come of practicing saying no in many different contexts and with many different levels of things at stake. It will get easier and easier for people who are ready to see it to see the “you” in the “no” and therefore easier to hear the “no.”
- Before you say “no,” once you’ve decided you are going to say “no,” prepare for the energetic pushback (doesn’t matter where it comes from) by putting a protection on the edge of your aura. If you are open to meditation, close your eyes and picture an egg-shape border around your energetic space. Place a protective image (it can be anything that gives you pleasure to look at, a flower, a pumpkin, a sword) on the edge of your space, right on the border between yourself and the outside. Imagine a line of energy running from the pumpkin/flower/sword into the center of earth. Breathe deeply as you do this. Make sure the chord attaches firmly at top and bottom, and keep reimagining it if it gives you any trouble, until it looks strong without any glitches in it. When you are done, explode everything and come out of meditation. Do this every day to keep the protection emblem fresh. Your protection image will handle the resistance for you by catching it before it enters your energetic space. It will funnel it in to the earth so that you don’t have to handle it. I swear it works. I suggest doing this before you say no, so that you have it in place several days beforehand, if possible.
What you will get when you learn to say no like yourself:
A feeling that your life is your own and that nobody decides how you spend your energy/time or what makes you a good person but you. When you say “no,” you open space for yourself to grow, make art, and be there for the people you love. I can’t overstate how empowering this has been for me, and I hope it is helpful to you.