On Learning To Say No, And When You Should Say It


Many of us find it difficult to say no to a specific request. No is a negative word, it literally negates, it disaffirms, it rejects, repudiates, repels, refuses and withholds – it is the red light at the traffic lights saying do not proceed, it is the thumbs down. So it is also a kind of blocking, and saying no to someone creates a problem for them, it stops them from moving forward from their current position and therefore people generally don’t like hearing it and they can find it hard to take, and as a consequence they can make you feel guilty, selfish and ashamed for saying the ‘dirty’ word no.

In contrast, of course, yes is a positive, welcoming, affirming response. It’s the green light to go, it’s approval, acceptance, it’s giving and generous, it’s the thumbs up. In the Roman arena it meant life. And people naturally just love hearing yes. Yes, I can do that for you. Yes, of course, you only have to ask. Rather than No, I’m so sorry, but I just can’t…gabbling out a list of reasons or excuses (you can’t work out which), that come out sounding very much like cringing evasions. And take note of the way we have to soft soap the no response, to make it more smoothly digestible than a flat no, which comes across as all spiky and unpalatable, with little respect given for its sheer simplicity and authenticity.

And although we should realise that life itself, in good harmony and balance, can be seen to be an equal measure of negative and positive, yes and no – we don’t really see it this way, do we? If you think about it, we kind of rate the yes higher than the no.


Now, most of us will be fine with saying yes when we are happy to help, or do a particular job for someone where we benefit too in one way or another, when yes means ‘no problemo, amigo’, and we feel like being giving, and many of us are fine at saying no when the action goes against our beliefs, values, personal tastes and personal code of ethics. For example, I wouldn’t ever have a problem saying no to following a fox hunt in a four by four (or by any other mode of transport for that matter, but especially a four by four ;>)), handing around drinks and canapés at a posh reception, or being asked to publically praise someone who has proved themselves consummately skilled at extolling their own virtues.

But how do we manage saying no, when we are not happy to help, when that requested action does cause a problem for us, perhaps when it goes against our inner values or principles, against our very grain, or our innermost heart, if it’s a particularly difficult decision? How do we deal with it then?

Well, first we have to understand what drives the ‘yes’ process within our collective human nature. After all, not many of us are capable of carefully weighing up the ramifications and potential outcomes of saying no or yes, like making a calculated move in a game of chess.

It’s more of an on the spot head versus heart tackle – a quick tussle in the ring, and then a look to see if a worthy winner has emerged, or even more preferably perhaps if they have come to a gentleman’s agreement? Head and Heart in harmony, what could be more perfect than that?


Or the inner critic may pop up and have a go at the inner self, and start telling you what you should do.


So if we look at what drives yes, Russ Harris, in his book, The Happiness Trap, points out that as early humans we constantly had to evaluate the world around us to avoid dangers, so explaining why we are hard-wired to look for problems, to assess situations as harmful or helpful. In this vein we also benefited from belonging to a social group, and pleasing that social group meant we protected out place within it and thereby our own safety. We would always be checking to see if we were still liked, we would compare ourselves to others to see if we were fitting in. We would ask questions of ourselves: ‘Am I fitting in? Am I doing the right thing? Am I contributing enough? Am I as good as the others? Am I doing anything that might get me rejected?’

 Now, to do anything that might reject us from that group, such as saying no to a request from the group or an individual within it, meant we could be ejected from the group with our very survival severely compromised. Outcast, alone, wandering around feeling terrible, ruing the very day of our refusal, going over and over it and wishing we could take it back. So you can see, from this psychological perspective saying no is to rebel, to go against, and ultimately to go your own way with more risks attached. You say no, you have to take the consequences: wither and die, or embrace going against the crowd, developing a new mindset and surviving in a state of more relative freedom even if it is for a shorter space of time before we get eaten by a wolf.

And sometimes we do have to say no. When we feel an inner conflict raise it’s head when we are at the very brink of saying yes, then that is when we really know that we should say no, and that no must mean no.

I’ll give you an example. This week I had one of these instances very close to my heart, where I felt I had to chose one creative art form over another (yes, ouch!). No game of chess moment, but an acute tussle in the ring. After initially agreeing to do a traditional illustration job in principle about two weeks ago, and waiting for some reference material to come through to use for a rough sketch which never did come through (had been sent but not received), I didn’t want to do it, and I subsequently I turned it down, with plenty of profuse apologies, and yes, there was the guilt inducing word in their response of ‘disappointed’ (Please beware this word! – it can really stab into your core). Now this is the first time I have ever done this. It was a big deal and it was a hard decision to say no. Why? Because I’ve spent years wanting to say an affirmative yes to any illustration work at all, which, whenever I got the chance, I did. But since then, I’ve changed, and to some extent so has the market. But if we stick with me, I’ve changed. I’ve learned that I have to feel a sense of trust in who is doing the commissioning and I have to have some attraction for the subject. Why so picky? After all, you get paid don’t you? Well, picky because you need to care about it to have the discipline to see it through the stages and get it right for you, and right for the client, and because you chose this line of work because you enjoyed it and found it very stimulating, basically for great job satisfaction. Well, without going into particulars, these required factors weren’t present, but I had another huge reason for wanting to say no. Because of timing really, after all you don’t necessarily have to chose one art form over another if you have time to do both. But my big reason was, right now, and at the beginning of this new year, I want to be spending my spare time on writing-related work, getting my novel ‘out there’. I might have been able to squeeze some painting in, but I would feel I was going backwards.

Now interestingly, this time my inner critic, which I have trained a little better than in the past, was on my side:-

Inner critic: You’ll have to say no. Look at your reaction (flush of aversion going on)
Inner self: What? But you’re never supposed to turn work down!
Inner critic: Yes, but that was then, this is now. You obviously don’t want to do it.
Inner self: But it’s copping out, isn’t it?
Inner critic: No, you’re just protecting yourself. You want to put your forward focus into writing right now. That is what is most important.
Inner self: That’s true. And I don’t want to do that particular illustration, anyway.
Inner critic: Well, there we are then!

 So, no it had to be, thanks to a newly supportive inner critic, protecting my sensitive little artist soul. Please do cultivate and master yours. I wrote a previous post on this, which you might like to check out here. I do suspect this kind of conflict-weighted saying no has no clear cut happy ending, but at least you know exactly why you’ve had to say no, and that in itself is important.

In The Artist’s Way,  by Julia Cameron, Claudia Black is quoted as saying:-

‘Saying no can be the ultimate self-care’

So this is something to bear in mind when choosing yes or no. Why?

Because saying  yes when you want to say no, sets up inner conflict, and thereby leads to stress. Stress inside you, cultivating bubbling resentment and animosity. And if it goes on for long enough it can affect you health. So if you can develop awareness of your inner reactions and can connect with your inner values, understanding why you have them, and know what direction you, for your own sake, and the sake of your creative work, need to flow in, and with which your heart agrees, then all these factors within you can be used to answer with a yes, or a no.

And remember, saying no can be a positive thing, an empowering thing, and one of the most assertive things you can do – and most of all means you are being authentic, both to others and most importantly, to yourself.

Sometimes the right answer is NO




(All images courtesy of pixabay, apart from my thumbnail of the inner critic)







About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: lynnefisher.wordpress.com Art: lynnehenderson.co.uk Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnefisherheadtoheadhearttoheart/ Artists page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnehendersonartist/
This entry was posted in Inner Critic, Interpersonal conflict, On Life, On The Creative Life, Pyschology, wellbeing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On Learning To Say No, And When You Should Say It

  1. Very positive Lynne, esp. useful when girding the loins for the day!


  2. Love your blog! Such organised thoughts ❤


  3. ‘Saying no can be the ultimate self-care’ My heart sings yes, yes, yes,… saying no was when I realised that I had become my own person… no said calmly with no trimmings, or excuses is accepted immediately by others I find…
    Previously I’d noticed how at a PTA meeting a lawyer/parent was asked if he’d do something for the school, and he said no – no excuses, no reasons, -just no , and everyone took it like lambs – big lesson !!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Yes, exactly – say ing no, with no ‘trimmings’ is the best way. I’ve found that too, though it has come with time. I consider first, which I didn’t do so much in the past, and go deep to ask myself whether I will be ok to say yes, or not. It’s that calm consideration that’s key. Of course one can also say no in action, like I am not going to do any more of this or that because it is harming me now. I gave up teaching my art classes and churning out cards and prints for a cooperative shop I was in because a big NO had been building inside. The outcome was a dramatic pulling out of both – I could have done without the drama, it was awful!, very sudden for those concerned, but sheer survival for me. So now I am very careful what I commit to, or not as the case may be. Many thanks, Valerie!


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