There is a therapeutic children’s game that asks the question, “How can saying ‘no’ keep you from getting angry?” This question often stumps whoever is playing, myself included, because it is difficult to think through ways that saying “yes” to things can result in anger. First, it means that we chose to say “no” in the first place which does not always come naturally and second, it means that we are willing to tune in to the potential for negative emotions as a result from saying “yes”. In a recent conversation with a friend, she reflected “don’t say maybe to something when you wanted to say no” and that resonated with me on why this question stumps so many individuals and their families. We are a society that is not good at saying “no”. We overcommit to things, say “yes” to please someone else, we feel uncomfortable or awkward setting a limit with our time and begin to worry that we may disappoint or anger someone if we say “no” to their request. The truth is, an assertive “no” is a necessary skill to learn. When done well, saying “no” can lead to better use of your time, being passionate and connected to the times that you do say “yes” and help you feel more in control of your time rather than being in the control of others.
You may already be feeling uncomfortable at the idea of saying “no” to things, many of us are, but let’s think through some ways that an assertive “no” could be an important skill for you to master:
-Saying “no” to other things is saying “yes” to yourself and your schedule. It is an important step in balance and self care to be able to prioritize and choose wisely where you commit your time. A fellow therapist recently wrote a blog related to writing yourself into your own calendar, and saying “no” to other commitments is a great step in finding time for yourself. We all know the feeling of looking at our schedule and wishing that we were using our time differently. In many cases, you have control of your schedule based on what you say “yes” or “no” to and you will feel calmer and more balanced if you do not say “yes” to every request that comes your way.
-Saying “no” allows us to be present and passionate about what we choose to do rather than feeling regret, frustration or resentment of saying “yes”. One reason saying “no” may feel difficult is because you enjoy pleasing others or want to avoid the conflict that may arise from saying “no”. In the end those around you would prefer that you be present and happy with your “yes” than resentful or frustrated that you didn’t say “no”. When our schedules are full and our days feel packed, even a fun event or request can feel like too much. It is okay to say “no” even to things you may want to attend if you know that you need to use the time in other ways such as time for rest, self care, or time with family.
-Saying “no” does not require an explanation. This can be the most difficult piece to wrap our brains around (or at least it can be for me). You may find yourself in a situation where you do not want to say “yes” or your schedule does not allow for a “yes” and you feel the need to provide an explanation for your “no”. That is not necessary. It is completely reasonable for you to be able to say “no” or “no thank you” without giving your reason. You are not obligated to say “yes” to every request and likewise you are not obligated to provide reasons for your “no”. In an Interpersonal Relationships course that I took in college, one of the skills that we learned was how to say “no” without providing an explanation as this has become a difficult and often times anxiety provoking task. It is empowering to be able to graciously, yet assertively say “no” especially when we remember that a “no” to something else is a “yes” to us. It is okay to say “no” to things, especially if it will overcommit your time or cause you stress.
-Saying “no” can be done in a way that is not rude or standoffish. When we are overwhelmed, we are more likely to use a negative tone or non-verbal communication that could be received as rude or aggressive. Choosing your “yes” and “no” responses wisely allows you to assertively say “no” with kindness and manners. It is okay to thank someone for asking and to say that you hope to be able to say “yes” in the future (if you mean that!) while still saying “no” to the immediate request. Again, even saying “no” without explanation can be done in a way that is not divisive. A gentle “no, thank you” is a sentence that I challenge you to work into your daily vernacular.
As with all things, balance and moderation are important in learning to say “no”. It is okay to say “yes”. It is necessary at times to say “yes”. My message is not to say “no” to everything and cut yourself off from time with others or relationship but rather when we are intentional about our time we can improve our relationships with others, bring our best selves and reduce feelings of overwhelm. Start small, be true to yourself and work to find some answers to the question “how can saying ‘no’ keep you from getting angry?”