At first glance, the word no appears to have a somewhat negative connotation, as if the person saying it is stubborn, hard-nosed, inflexible, or close-minded. Yet there is nothing inherently wrong with saying no and the same point can be made about saying yes for that matter. Paradoxically, whenever we say no to something, we are simultaneously saying yes to something else. This is the unavoidable consequence of each decision we make. Thus the proverb rings so true: you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. The ‘yes to this, so no to that’ reality remains constant as something is always going to take precedence. Saying no is in and of itself insignificant. It is what we are saying no to and why we are saying no that matters.
The Why of Saying No
It is tough to say no sometimes because of our fear of upsetting others. We do not want to disappoint other people by declining their requests. It is also true that pleasing others feels good. Thus when we decide to tell someone no, there is the loss of a presumed positive and affirming connection that we might have shared together. This can feel like a real blow to our relationship with them. After all, we tend to want others to think well of us. We wonder if saying no presents us in a bad light, putting our likability at risk. We worry what others might think of us for declining to do what they asked of us. Thus saying yes holds a certain appeal in the moment, but in the long run there are real downsides for the person who goes around trying to satisfy everyone else’s desires. Consider the following:
- Spreading yourself too thin or exhausting yourself
- Putting yourself in the vulnerable position of being taken advantage of, taken for granted, or underappreciated
- The deterioration of healthy and appropriate relational boundaries between yourself and others
- Becoming an enabler of someone with an unhealthy habit
- A growing, but false belief that your worth is based on other’s opinions of you
In other words, as already noted, saying no to someone may really be a yes to maintaining healthy, appropriate boundaries, good self-care, and ultimately might be what is best for the other person, too. So it is important to consider what our underlying reason or motivation is for saying no. For instance, if we say no to a challenging opportunity out of fear, defiance or laziness, we may miss out on a unique chance to grow, learn or accomplish a goal. However, if we say no to a temptation to honor a previous commitment made or avoid a negative consequence, we maintain the integrity of our word, our convictions, and again avoid unnecessary troubles.
The What of Saying No
Since every moment of every day we are making countless decisions that we in turn must live with, there is no avoidance of this truth that “…a man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7b NIV). It behooves us therefore to consider what exactly we are saying no to. Where we find ourselves today is in part due to what we said yes or no to yesterday. Similarly, with an eye to the future, what we say yes or no to today shapes our tomorrow. You do your future self a favor when you “give careful thought to the paths for your feet” (Proverbs 4:26a NIV).
Obviously, it is necessary to say no in order to protect ourselves from dangers, negative influences or potential harm. Loving parents encourage their children and adolescents to say no when facing negative peer pressure. Saying no assists us in avoiding anything potentially damaging or unhealthy. Even something seemingly neutral can be taken to an extreme. Thus, learning to say no can help us to avoid “too much of a good thing.”
Telling ourselves no and cutting ourselves off from certain things is also an important part of self-discipline. Remaining persistent in steering clear of certain harmful or unhelpful things builds character. Saying no is necessary in challenging our lust or unrestrained desire for the things of this world.
What we expose ourselves to time after time has a way of shaping who we become and what we value. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21 NIV). It is therefore important to consider what we are letting into our lives and likewise what might be best to say no to. There is wisdom in the following: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23 NIV).
Cade Amend is a licensed professional counselor at Prairie View, Inc.’s Newton office.