By Natalie Lue
Until my late twenties, I believed that “no” was a dirty word that you should go out of your way to avoid saying lest you wind up hurting people’s feelings, looking selfish, or inviting conflict, criticism and abandonment. I figured saying yes was the way to go, regardless of how I felt on the inside.
I believed “yes” made me a Good Person who would eventually be successful and happy in all the ways society tells us we’ll be if we “please” others.
But then I found myself wrestling with the consequences of my misspent yeses—settling for crumbs in romantic relationships with unavailable and shady men, hating myself, resenting loved ones, burnout, and poor health.
Like other things in life that you know are good for you but that you don’t necessarily do—drinking plenty of water, getting enough rest and sleep, flossing, honesty—I had some awareness that saying no and boundaries were important. I was getting away with getting by, though, or so I thought. The status quo wasn’t uncomfortable enough yet, and, to my mind, I hadn’t experienced big enough consequences to warrant a change in attitude.
I hadn’t connected the dots between everything I was being, doing, feeling, and thinking, so it was easy to attribute any issues I experienced to something else. Like me being “not good enough”, “not having “tried hard enough”, or something being beyond my control.
Many of us don’t realise that our boundaries are an expression of our self-esteem.
This means how much we know ourselves and how authentically we show up, plus whether we say no, express limits, and don’t allow ourselves to be exploited, is an expression of the health of our relationship with ourselves and others.
Receiving a poor prognosis for the immune system disease I was grappling with at the time gave me the much-needed boot in the backside to finally start saying no when I needed, wanted to, and should.
In an ideal world, it wouldn’t take being dangerously unwell or something else terrible happening in our lives—e.g. breakup, redundancy, being in deep pain—to finally make a necessary change and adopt healthier habits. The reality is that most humans wait for something to be really, really bad before they finally understand the consequences of their harmful and unhelpful patterns.
A health problem and finally hydrating our body helps us recognise how our body needs that water. Burnout forces us to confront our relationship with work, expectations, rest, and saying yes and no. The dentist pointing out a litany of embarrassing problems connected to our lack of flossing makes us finally adopt the habit.
Being more honest helps us recognise that the sky doesn’t fall down and that we don’t want the problems that come with being dishonest.
In my book, The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon), I share what I’ve learned from my seventeen-year journey of being a recovering people pleaser.
From someone who was terrified of having boundaries and avoided saying no, I’ve become someone who recognises that every challenge and joy in my life comes from saying no where I need, want to, and should so that I can say yes to the people, things, and opportunities that reflect me being more of who I really am. Plenty of us think that saying yes willy-nilly, without discretion and discernment, is a “good” thing.
If we’re super honest with ourselves, though, saying yes inauthentically or without consideration of our needs, expectations, desires, feelings, and opinions really doesn’t feel good. We don’t have to accept the status quo of disliking ourselves; of quietly fuming about the things people ask and expect of us while painting a smile on our face; of putting ourselves last in the hopes that others will reward us or, at the very least, not hurt us.
People Pleasing, including playing roles in our relationships like the Good Girl/Guy, the Listener, the Helper, or the Scapegoat and avoiding saying no, is toxic to our well-being and the intimacy of our relationships.
If we don’t say yes authentically, we say it resentfully, fearfully and avoidantly, and that leads to more problems than if we’d just said no in the first place.
It’s true that by saying no more often, we won’t get the instant gratification of appearing to please others or avoiding conflict and criticism. It is also true that we will experience the short-, medium-, and long-term benefits of having a healthier relationship with ourselves and others that respects our and their boundaries. Don’t wait for things to be really, really bad before you finally allow yourself to say no when you need, want to, and should. Start wherever you’re at, and let it grow from there.
Natalie, 45, is a writer, artist, and author of five books, including Mr Unavailable and the Fallback Girl and The Joy of Saying No. She helps people pleasers, perfectionists and relationship strugglers reclaim themselves from their emotional baggage so that they can become more of who they really are. Her key topics include boundaries, emotional unavailability, and how to foster increased emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual well-being by breaking harmful and unhelpful patterns.
Natalie’s work has been featured in various media, including The New York Times, NPR, BBC, Washington Post, Stylist, and USA Today.
Natalie Lue Author, podcaster, speaker