Learning to Say No

by Christina Baris | 2/13/19 2:05am

We’ve all experienced the absolute joy that results from cancelled plans. Maybe that time you once allotted for your club meeting can now go toward that coveted extra hour of sleep, or you can get one episode further in your latest Netflix binge. But what happens when cancellations incite more joy than the activity itself? If you’re always excited about cancelled plans, it might be time to ask yourself if you really should’ve had those plans in the first place.

The cause of this problem is a very simple, two-letter word: “no.” It’s pronounced the same way in multiple languages, yet there is something about this word that makes it so difficult to say aloud. So, in the spirit of self-care, let’s discuss some of the reasons why it might be hard to say no and why it’s important to overcome this fear.  

My fear of saying no probably stems from my annoyingly intense need to be liked by pretty much everyone I meet. Last year, when watching a John Mulaney comedy special (a pastime that I highly recommend to literally everyone), I came across a quote that was just a little too relatable: “I need everyone to like me so much. It’s exhausting.” It’s a joke, but it’s also painfully true. I’ve discovered that needing to be universally liked isn’t just tiring — it’s colossally stupid. Any opinion that’s even worth having isn’t going to be supported by everyone, so what’s the use of trying to please everyone? To put it bluntly: in search of being likeable, we risk losing individuality. And yet, I constantly find myself calculating which exact steps I need to take in order to make everyone happy, and sometimes, one of those steps is saying “yes” when I really would rather not. In doing this, perhaps I succeed in pleasing others — but have I made myself happy? 

Being disliked isn’t a strictly negative concept. Individuals who change the world are not the people who everyone liked — they’re the ones who stood by their beliefs despite opposition. They’re the ones who mastered the art of saying no.  

I also fear saying no due to my hatred of confrontation. “No” is usually not the answer people want to hear and sometimes leads to arguments that could have been avoided with a simple “yes.” There is a misconception that “no” is indicative of laziness. However, “yes” is oftentimes the real path of least resistance. When I’m too afraid of disappointing people, I say yes. It’s the easy thing to do, but it’s not always the right thing. “Yes” prolongs problems, making them briefly disappear only to show up later in full force. As an avid procrastinator, that is a recurring theme I know all too well. 

“There is a misconception that 'no' is indicative of laziness. However, 'yes' is oftentimes the real path of least resistance.”

The desire to be “accomplished” is certainly not foreign to any Dartmouth student. Naturally, we pile on activities to discover new interests, pursue current passions and constantly remain busy. If I’ve learned anything during my first term at Dartmouth (besides the fact that chocolate covered espresso beans are not a viable substitute for sleep), it’s that being busy does not always result in instant happiness. Although I hate idleness, too much activity only results in stress and a lack of sleep. In order to maintain sanity, it’s necessary to learn when to say no.

The fear of saying no also aligns perfectly with the fear of missing out, or FOMO. Currently, FOMO is amplified by social media’s reign on our perception of the lives of others. When I decide not to go out, my feed is flooded with Snapchat and Instagram pictures that highlight only the best moments of the night. Immediately, I begin to question my decision to stay in. That same mentality applies to saying no. What will I give up by saying no? What’s the opportunity cost? I’ll never miss out on anything if I never say no — but how sustainable can a lifestyle like that really be? 

By saying no, we gain control. However, we must consider not only what we say, but also how we say it. In college, we lose the ability to use the age-old excuse of “my mom said no.” Let’s take a minute to appreciate the beauty of this excuse: it’s versatile (just try to name a situation that this excuse doesn’t work for) and very hard to argue against (oh sure, you might be able to convince me to change my mind — but are you really going to oppose my mom?). Yet this excuse is also a lame attempt to deflect blame and avoid guilt. It’s not even remotely assertive, and — if we’re being honest — it’s probably not true (did you even ask your mom?). We should be held accountable for our own actions. Part of growing up is changing “my mom said no” to “I’m saying no.” This distinction highlights that we are in control of our lives and decisions. 

Saying no can also be a sign of confidence and determination. People who really know what they want also know what they don’t want. Learning that you don’t like something can be just as valuable as learning that you do. While “no” may sound like a missed opportunity, it can be used to focus your goals and aspirations. 

Highlighting the importance of saying no should not disregard the importance of also saying yes. It’s completely necessary to step outside our comfort zones. But we must say yes for the right reasons. Is your “yes” an excited offer to try something new, or is it merely a fearful attempt to avoid conflict?  

Self-care has wrongly become synonymous with Lush facemasks and candlelit baths. To truly take care of ourselves, we must first understand ourselves; to overcome our fears, we must first notice them. Sometimes you need to ask yourself if you really want to go out this Friday night. Do you actually have the time to add another club to your schedule? Will you complete every favor that is asked of you out of sheer compliance? It’s really great to help others, but sometimes you also need to help yourself. 

Do yourself a favor and acknowledge your own limitations. Stop biting off more than you can chew by learning how and when to say no. Soon enough, you’ll be replacing the joy of cancelled plans with the joy of a properly balanced schedule.