A herd of sheep following the leader
Photo by VENUS MAJOR on Unsplash

How to say no and when to do so is a powerful skill to have. There are too many people whose lives are dictated by others. I was, and on certain levels, still am dealing with the fact that I find it difficult to say no. But by saying no to others, you say yes to yourself. Although that might sound selfish at first, it is important to accept that you need to prioritize yourself. If saying no sounds too harsh, then it is good to examine what we say yes to and why we do so. Either answer needs to be given with sincerity otherwise they lose all their value. Besides that, we shouldn’t forget the option of a pause. There’s no need to answer on the spot if we don’t know.

“If an action or utterance is appropriate, then it’s appropriate for you. Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do it, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say.

The others obey their own lead, follow their own impulses. Don’t be distracted. Keep walking. Follow your own nature, and follow Nature – along the road they share.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 5.3

We will go on a journey to find out what saying no means. Explore some tools to add to your vocabulary if you struggle with using no. What is more important, however, is to learn why we say no and then how we do so. We can start by setting our no as a default answer, but we should work towards a position of indifference. Being able to objectively review each situation and then decide on the best course of action. Learning how to say no will open up a new world of options.

No as a Default

If you struggle with saying no to people, then setting no as your default answer can help you get used to this possibility. There will be people who see this as shortsighted and closed-minded. But to find the balance we sometimes need to over-correct at the start. When people-pleasers, like myself, use no as their starting point, they are able to protect themselves a lot better. At this stage of the process we aren’t looking at the why, we want to get used to this answer. The reason that you are reflecting on the topic of how to say no means that you need to work on it. That’s enough to answer why for now. This doesn’t mean you can never say yes, it means that the yes needs more convincing. 

Once we learn why no is more than a valid answer, we will be able to get more comfortable with it. What we need to remember is that options give us the incentive to think about what is important to us. If we only say yes to everything, then we don’t think for ourselves. We let others determine what we are doing. By adding no to the equation, we are forced to think. We now ask ourselves what a yes would imply. This way we can start to figure out what matters to us and where our priorities lie. It is a big step to learning who we are and what we stand for.

The Yes-people

People following the leader, yes people
Photo by Jaime Lopes on Unsplash

Who are those who say yes more than they should? As one myself, I fall into the category of people pleasers. And to be honest, it gives me joy to help others. Yet, I’ve learned that there are limits. Those who try to make sure others are doing well and are having their needs met, often pay the price with their own life. Not wanting to disappoint others by agreeing creates anxiety and can cause conflicts of interest. A sincere no can help those around you even more. Then there are those who don’t know who they are and what they want out of life. Without direction, it is easier to follow others. In this case, a no means having to come up with an alternative. Now the responsibility falls on us, while with an affirmative answer that is no longer yours.

There are more reasons why people say yes more than no. But it doesn’t come from people who prioritize themselves. That’s the first step we want to take. To make sure that our priority is where it needs to be. By saying yes, it seems that we are helping the community around us. But is that true? We can have a bigger impact on the world around us if we act out of our nature. To do this, we need to put ourselves first. Now we can be more consistent in our decisions since we are working from our foundation. Building on this we can provide far greater value to the world around us. By choosing what to say no to and what yes, we decide the direction we go.

The message you send

We are now learning to say no more often and we are taking the first steps to understand why. By knowing who we are and what our priorities are, we have a better view of our path. And although people don’t like hearing a no, if you stay close to who you are they will get used to it. This doesn’t mean you need to say no all the time. But as you go on this journey you can better evaluate when to comply with a request. Yet, the message you send to others with your no, and your yes, will be clear. The world will know what to expect from you. You can show your true colors and allow others to judge you for who you are. Moreover, it will show them what you stand for.

Your yes will then have far more impact. The moments when you choose to help someone out will be more sporadic, but they will mean more. A few things will happen. Fewer people will start to come up to you for the little things they wanted your time for before. Now, when they do, you’ll know it’s something important for that person. It will also help them, as they need to rely on themselves a bit more. If we keep fixing the problems at our work by over-extending ourselves, then our employers or managers will never know about the problem. They will keep things as they are and won’t seek a solution. It is then up to our judgment to see when a yes is warranted. But we shouldn’t be afraid to use our no.

A no is humbling

Man overthinking his actions, humbling
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

No’s are humbling. For both sides. It shows everyone that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Not you nor the other people. By not complying people will see that you also have a life. And if you wish to say why you said no, you can be honest about your reasons. It will allow the other party to see another side of you. One they can relate to, because we all have our issues. You could be tired or don’t feel like it; those are valid reasons. But they show that not everyone is jumping at their every request.

It also works the other way. You will find out that people survive, even without your help. Which in and of itself could be a reason why some default on the yes. The fear of not being needed anymore. However, if looked at from the right angle, not one of fear, we can see that it liberates us. The world will keep spinning, we can be ourselves and the rest will do what they always have. What is better? To follow other people’s lives or stay focused on our own. And if you do stick to your own lane, then you’ll be able to provide the value that only you can give. Your nature will reveal itself to you.

Set you boundaries

This is a matter of setting your boundaries. Where do you limit the influence others have on you? When do you choose yourself as a priority? If we don’t protect or take care of ourselves, then no one will. It is our responsibility to do so. We can keep complaining that we don’t have time for ourselves, or that we are being lived. But unless we take control of how we want to live it, we keep giving it away. No is a clear boundary, if it happens from honest reasons, not out of spite or resentment. This requires us to know who we are and what we want. Nothing to hide behind anymore. It’s time to step to the plate. This is where Stoicism come in. We need the virtues for this. They will be our guide as we take agency.

How to say No. "Don’t be distracted. Keep walking. Follow your own nature, and follow Nature" Marcus Aurelius
Photo by Dennis Ottink on Unsplash

We need wisdom to be our foundation of knowing who we are and staying open-minded to examine each situation objectively. Justice will help us make the right decision. Although, if we are at the beginning, we can choose to default to no. But the more we grow, the more justice will take over and we can start from a point of indifference. Putting both on the scale and being able to judge correctly. Courage is there to help us get started. To say that first no, which is often the most difficult. And then to keep going and in moments when we doubt, show us the way. Temperance will provide us with the reasoning power to not go overboard. We need to make balanced decisions. Temper our emotions to the externals and look from within.

How and why to say no

No is now a part of our vocabulary and we are able to use it when required. It’s a matter of self-protection and clear communication. How we do so also matters. We’ve seen that different people find this difficult and we’ve seen the benefits. Our no’s need to be consistent with who we are and come from an honest and sincere place. Then they will be accepted as well as a yes. The why is key to provide the how. It shows people who you are, and what you stand for. What they can ask you for and that if they do, they can rely on you. Above all, you’ll be more confident in yourself. You are now taking your life back and learning to live it on your terms. In accordance with your nature and thus being able to serve the community best.

How to Say No
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3 thoughts on “How to Say No

  • 23 April 2023 at 16:36

    I like the perspective of seeing the ‘no’ we’re saying to someone or something as a ‘yes’ to ourselves; that is a perfect way to describe it — it’s a reminder that boundaries are not only helpful, they are necessary. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

    • 5 June 2023 at 09:10

      Thank you, Molly, for highlighting that part of the text, because that realization made big changes in how I look at myself, my boundaries and the relationships I have.

  • 3 August 2023 at 23:06

    Nice post Benny. I’ve been learning to say no over the last year or so. Strangely, saying yes is a bit of a habit that’s tough to kick…I often hear myself saying yes while thinking – I don’t want to do that..why did I just agree? Having no as a default in the first instance sounds like a good strategy to try:) Be a no-man, at least to begin with. I also liked the idea of saying no to protect yourself. Theses days there are so many demands on the psyche of any individual and failing to find a balance between our yeses and nos will allow problems to develop. A healthy life is about achieving balance in many different areas. Helping / pleasing others vs helping ourselves is just one scale of our lives we need to even out. It’s as good as any to work on and once achieved I know can reap healthy rewards for an individual and those around them.


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