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“No” Isn’t a Dirty Word

woman looking contemplative
It doesn't feel OK to say no, but sometimes we should.

I used to feel obligated to say yes to everyone. If a friend asked me to join an outing, if a mom in my church asked me to babysit or if a peer needed a favor, I had to say yes. This became an addiction for me and left me mentally drained, physically exhausted and spiritually defeated. My addiction to saying yes reared its ugly head in my career, hobbies, family life and faith.

CEO Camille Preston shared, “By saying yes to too many things, we may be saying no to some very important things. If our plate is too full, there’s no room for the unexpected or ideal opportunity. If our fences aren’t strong, everything gets in.”

During my junior year of college, I had many exciting opportunities come my way. Because they were all so exciting, I said yes to almost all of them. Yes to writing for the school newspaper. Yes to teaching a children’s class. Yes to working three different jobs. Yes to going out with friends. It was the busiest, craziest year of college for me. I had precious little time to myself, I became irritable and burnt out, and I began losing my battle with anxiety. Saying yes to everything stole my love for living.

The next year, I said no to more things than I said yes. Some people didn’t understand. In fact, some people tried to convince me to change my mind. But I held my ground. And that year was probably the best year of college for me.

Sure, I still had a lot going on, but I was in control of it. I was prioritizing the things that really mattered to me by choosing what I did and didn’t do. Some of the things I said no to were good opportunities that sounded exciting or promising, but I knew that saying yes would stretch me too thin. I passed on good opportunities, because I was pursuing better ones.

As a result, I had more time to rest and catch up with my family, fiancé and friends. And I was able to fully enjoy each thing on my plate, putting my best foot forward.

But if you’re like me, simply hearing the benefits of saying no doesn’t help. Because it still doesn’t feel OK to say no. So let me share three concrete truths I’ve begun to preach to myself when “no” seems like a hurtful word.

You are not meant to fill every need.

Some of us feel that if there’s a need, we must fill it. Because if we don’t, who will? We think it’s our duty to offer our services every time a need arises. This is especially true within ministry. Sometimes we even feel we must help in areas where we aren’t especially skilled, because, well, someone needs help.

But your shoulders aren’t meant to bear everyone’s burdens. Meeting all the needs of the world is not your responsibility. No one person can handle that weight.

God has blessed us with different talents and different things that energize and excite us. So instead of automatically saying yes each time you’re asked to do something, save your energy and passion for the specific roles God has prepared you to fill. Your raw talents can be your guide in determining when to say no and, more excitingly, when to say yes.

If someone asked me to entertain a group of kids for the evening, I’d probably say yes. But if that same person asked me to organize a big event, I’d probably say no. Because I know what I’m good at and what I enjoy.

If everyone loved to volunteer with young kids, who would volunteer with the at-risk teens? If everyone in your company was good with numbers, who would take care of customer service? It’s true there are many needs in our world. But the best way to meet them is for everyone to fill the roles they’re best equipped for and leave the rest for those who are better equipped.

Think of it this way: By saying no to a request, you’re making space for the person who would love to say yes to it.

Being busy is not always a good thing.

I work in the world of freelancers, solopreneurs, side hustlers and business owners. And in this world, people tote how few hours of sleep they get and how much caffeine they drink as if it’s a badge of honor. When asked, “How are you?,” the default answer is, “Busy.” I’ve been around people who are so stressed that just being around them made me feel stressed.

Perhaps these people think a packed schedule is a sign of success. Perhaps they think that 15-hour workdays are a rite of passage. Or perhaps they think they can’t or shouldn’t say no.

Career counselor Dara Blaine said, “We live in a ‘yes’ culture, where it’s expected that the person who is going to get ahead is the go-getter who says yes to everything that comes their way.… It’s when people learn to say no that I’ve really seen their careers take off.”

Just because the people around you are killing themselves to get ahead doesn’t mean it’s a requirement for you too. Busyness does not always equal productivity.

If our plate is too full, we will always fear something falling off. We won’t have enough time or energy to give each thing the attention it really needs. If you can’t say yes to something and follow through with excellence, you probably shouldn’t say yes at all. Think about it this way: The person who is asking for help would rather have the job completed on time and done well than have you complete it late and sloppily. Ultimately, you’re doing the person a favor by saying no.

In addition, rest is important. God rested on the seventh day of creation, creating an example for us to follow. Interestingly, 21 percent of adults who don’t sleep enough feel more stressed. A well-rested mind and body will be able to get work done more efficiently and more effectively than a sleep-deprived one.

Fear is not a right motive.

Maybe it’s FOMO (fear of missing out) or maybe it’s fear of inconveniencing someone. Other fears, according to Psychology Today, are fearing conflict or fearing someone’s disappointment.

Rather than deal with these fears, we just say yes — far too often. And we end up stressed, exhausted and burnt out, just like I was my junior year.

So now, when I’m faced with an opportunity, I ask myself these questions:

  • Do you believe people will view you as a better person (or a better worker, friend, Christian) if you say yes?
  • Are you concerned saying no may disappoint someone?
  • Are you concerned someone might disapprove of you saying no?
  • Does the thought of saying yes to this make you feel tired, resentful, anxious or stressed?
  • Or does it make you feel excited, alive and satisfied?

These questions serve as a flashlight for me, illuminating the dark corners of my motives to help me avoid minefields as I make my decision. The questions give me a better understanding of the opportunity and of myself. And they help me decide based on my current reality, not outward or self-inflicted pressure.

It’s also important to remember that your yes and no will not be the same as your best friend’s, your sibling’s or your co-worker’s. We each have different skills, passions and responsibilities.

I’m telling you to say no, but there’s a caveat.

Let me be clear about something — there are times when we should sacrifice our own comfort and desires for the sake of someone else’s. There are times when we forgo sleep to comfort a grieving friend or push our plans back a day to help an aging parent.

The Golden Rule still transcends our own desires and plans — “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). This encouragement to say no is not an excuse to live selfishly. It’s also not an excuse to ignore someone who truly needs your help.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about normal, day-to-day life that’s filled with things we could do, opportunities we could take, and favors we’re asked to give. A life that requires us to say no to some things.

You’re ready to say no, but how do you do it?

Wanting to say no and actually saying it are two very different things. Here are a few tips for saying no confidently and quickly:

1. Don’t make it personal.

You’re not rejecting the person you’re saying no to; you’re rejecting the request. It isn’t about the person; it’s about the timing or demands of the request. You’re not being rude or selfish; you’re being wise by not overcommitting yourself. They don’t know all that’s going on in your life right now, but you do.

2. Remember that saying no now doesn’t have to be for forever.

If you’re having to turn down something that sounds exciting, remember your no today doesn’t have to mean no forever. Eventually, you may have space for that opportunity, and then you can enjoy it fully and give it all the attention it deserves.

3. Ask for some time.

If you’re not positive you should say yes, ask for some time to think about it. You’ll have time to process, ask questions, seek advice from others and then make a level-headed choice. Your decision will be based on reality, not the need to get out of an awkward conversation or the feeling that you have to say yes.

4. Be straightforward and resolute.

Don’t beat around the bush trying to say no. Get straight to the point. This might even mean starting your answer with the word “no,” so you don’t have time to talk yourself out of it. You had a good reason for saying no, and it’s still a good reason even when it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. You shouldn’t make up a different excuse or lie to get out of the conversation.

5. Don’t overexplain.

Everyone else doesn’t need to know your reason(s) for saying no. You don’t need to justify anything, even if you’re feeling guilty. Giving reasons for saying no can open the door for others to try to work around them. Sometimes, the word “no” is enough.



Fox News quoted clinical psychologist Roni Cohen-Sandler: “In this age of constant electronic connectedness, requests are coming at us every waking hour, making it even more important to be able to put your foot down.”

Saying yes to every text message, email or phone call you receive will pack your schedule, but it won’t improve your life. Know your limits. Only you know all that’s on your plate, where your physical and mental limits are, and how you work best. Only you know how much saying yes will cost you. Make boundaries and stick to them. Respect your limits and your free time. Others will respect your respect for yourself. In fact, they may envy it.

Copyright 2018 Jessica Swanda. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Jessica Swanda

Jessica Swanda is a freelance writer who travels the USA full time with her husband. She’s always up for a good book, board game or a trip to the coffee shop. To read more about her travels, freelance career and faith journey, visit her site


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