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Start Saying NO

Are you ready to change your life? Do you want to be someone different? If so, you are going to have to learn to say no.

Wrinkled napkin with the word NO! written on it in black pen. The black pen and a green mug of coffee are sitting on the napkin.

Why saying yes keeps you stuck

If you want to change it means that there are things in your life right now that you don’t want. It means that you are not the person you want to be or doing the things you want to do. That didn’t happen overnight. It happened by saying yes to a lot of things that created this life you are in.

I’m not saying you are to blame for everything wrong in your life. There are certainly things you don’t have control over. None of us said yes to a pandemic, or excessive inflation, or racism, or a really lousy housing/rental market. There are some things we don’t say yes to but still significantly affect our lives.

If you are looking at a major life overhaul, though, there are a lot of things you did have control over that you said yes to. Things that maybe made sense at the time. That fit in with who you were and what you believed. That were chosen because you thought you were doing the “right” thing or being a “good” person.

You’ve said yes to friends, partners, jobs, habits, hobbies, recreations, clothing styles, living situations, expenses, priorities, purchases, decorations, vehicles, subscriptions, medical care, advice, financial decisions, and much more. These choices have all created the life you are living now. They are also probably things you continue to agree to do. You can’t move forward while still saying yes to all these things. Some of them will have to go. If you want to change, you need to start saying no.

Why saying no is important

One of the first steps of change is reconnecting with your authentic self. Trying to get in touch with who you really are under the layers of history, culture, and experience that make up your identity at this moment. We dive into this concept deeply in the blog post Your Identity vs. Your True Self. I’ll sum it up quickly by saying that your true self, the underlying core of who you are, remains relatively stable throughout your life while your identity changes over time. Often various cultural inputs and experiences in your life create an identity that is at odds with your authentic self. When the two diverge far enough, you end up discontent, unhappy, and ready for major change.

Sound familiar?

If you are still reading this post, you probably can relate. The frustration you feel right now is your true self calling you to reconnect. To let go of some of the pieces of your identity that have developed over the years by saying yes to the wrong things. Your true self wants you to start saying no to the things that you no longer want in your life.

Some of these things will be obvious. Take two minutes to write down 10 things you no longer want in your life. Go ahead and do it now.

Was that easy? Were there ideas just flying out of your head?

If so, that’s good. You have a base list of what you need to drop from your life.

If not, it’s time to sit down and put some serious thought into this. You can start to change your life just by looking at the things you want to create, but it is going to be a lot easier if you figure out what baggage you need to drop before you begin.

Saying no isn’t always simple

Some of the things you need to say no to will be easy:

  • I’m going to go through my house and throw away all those gifts I’ve kept out of guilt all these years! (Yes, getting rid of stuff in your house can help you change your life. Read more about that here.)

  • I’m going to stop letting my boss take advantage of my time.

  • I’m letting go of the excuses and finally getting into an exercise routine.

There are a lot of obvious things you need to say no to that won’t be easy:

  • Saying no to people who expect you to do certain things for them or be available all the time.

  • Saying no to bad habits you’ve picked up.

  • Saying no to volunteering every time someone asks for your help.

  • Saying no to people who are trying to keep you from changing.

These things might be obvious, but they aren’t easy. In order to do them, you’ll have to dig deep and exercise your “saying no” muscle. Fortunately, the more you do it, the easier it will get.

Where the work gets really fun, though, is when you take the time to examine your life and find the places where you need to say no that aren’t obvious and aren’t easy. This takes some self-reflection that can reveal some deep changes that are ready to happen.

The best way to find these hidden areas is to tune into your emotions and your body.

How to discover when you need to say no

Think of something you really don’t want to do. Maybe sticking your hand into a container of snakes or going bungee jumping. Get it in your head. Now, close your eyes and imagine doing that thing while you notice your body’s reaction to it: Do you go tense? Cringe? Feel sick to your stomach? Want to cry? Notice your emotions. Do you feel panic? Anger? Desperation? Fear?

Did you feel your emotions and body all saying NO!?

Now, think about something you really want to do. Maybe hanging out by the pool or snuggling with a loved one. Imagine that situation while you notice your emotional and physical reaction.

It’s really different, right? That is your body and emotions saying YES!

Now, these are extreme examples, but we can use them like two ends of a spectrum: your extreme YES and your extreme NO responses. In the middle are many grades of YES and NO.

A basic paper desk calendar open with appointments written on some of the dates.

Now what I want you to do is open up your calendar. Look at what is on your schedule for this week. For each item, close your eyes and imagine going through the motions of that event. Don’t think too hard about it. Just notice your initial emotional and physical reaction to that even that will happen. Are you feeling a NO or YES to each item?

You can even break some of your events down into smaller events. Maybe you get a NO response to going to your kid’s concert this week. But when you break it down a little, you realize that seeing your kid play is a YES but dealing with parking and crowded room is a NO.

Did you discover some interesting responses?

  • Maybe you had a NO reaction to that breakfast date with a friend.

  • Maybe you had a NO response to work, but then you thought of a particular thing you were going to work on that day and that item was a YES.

  • Maybe you had a YES response to going to a party but a NO response to some of the people who will be there.

There are many things that can influence our body’s NO and YES responses, but the better you get at doing this without overthinking it, the better you will get at hearing what your true self really thinks about the activities you engage in.

You can also take this technique and apply it to anything else in your life.

  • Go through your list of friends/aquaintances/coworkers and guage your response.

  • Think about your family members.

  • Write down activities you regularly do, hobbies you have, events you go to.

  • Consider all the stuff in your house.

  • Look at your bills and things you purchase.

  • Notice the food you eat and the restaurants you go out to.

Don’t leave anything out. Spend time walking through your days in your head and noticing your physical and emotional reactions. Write down anything that is a NO.

Finding things that are NOs in your life doesn’t mean you need to immediately throw them out in order to become your true self. It means you need to carefully consider that person/event/thing/whatever. There is something there calling for your attention to figure out why it isn’t working for you. Thinking of your best friend might bring a NO reaction to your body. That doesn’t mean you throw out that relationship and move on. It probably just means that something about that relationship needs to change so that both of you can move ahead into the lives you want (hopefully while still remaining best friends).

Getting a NO response to a party doesn’t mean you should never go to parties again. It might just mean that you need to be more selective about the ones you go to. Or that you go but decline to prepare food to take with you. Or that you only go when you know certain people will or will not be there.

This is a process that is going to take time and patience to work through. It’s also going to take some persistence on your part to say no to things that you previously always said yes to. It might be hard to change the expectations of those around you. It might be hard to change your habits. It might feel embarrassing or even wrong to say no to “good” things. Especially for women, we are socialized to say yes to so many things that aren’t in our best interest. Going against the culture will be hard.

Let me tell you about a big NO I had to listen to

I grew up in a religious home. Going to church several times a week was just something we did. I was taught from an early age that church attendance was one of the most important things I could do to maintain my faith. I was taught to give time and money to my church. I was taught to have lots of church friends and spend my free time at church events. I willingly said yes to these things growing up.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this. (For the record: it’s not inherently RIGHT either.) For millions of people, this culture works perfectly well for them. It fits their identities and makes them feel safe and included.

The problem was that the older I got, the less I felt YES while doing these things and the more I felt NO. Maybe six years ago I finally realized that I was dreading anything having to do with church. When I did go, I would sit there angry and frustrated. When I tried to connect with people there, I felt uncomfortable and unhappy. When I thought of giving up my limited time (and even more limited energy) to helping out, my body would basically shut down.

My identity as a person of faith who religiously went to church was at odds with my true self who really didn’t want to be there.

I think there are many reasons for this disconnect. One of the most significant is that conservative churches aren’t terribly supportive of independent, single, professional women with their own schedules and own agendas. I just didn’t fit the mold and felt pressure to be someone I was not (i.e.- a married women able to follow other people’s guidance and willing to help out whenever asked). After many years of listening to my body and emotions say NO to church going, I finally gave in and just decided to stop.

It was such a relief.

It also wasn’t easy.

I had to fight my own guilt and questions about who I was. I had to figure out what to say to others when they asked me what was going on. (Surprisingly few questions, actually. I guess churches are happy to let go of a random single woman who didn’t quite fit in.) I had to figure out how walking away from the church changed my faith and my priorities.

I’m saying this in the past tense like it is all over. There are still days when I question my choice. But when I think of getting up on Sunday morning and driving to church again, my whole body tells me NO.

Maybe this will change in the future. I have no idea. At the moment, I’m happy with my choices. For whatever reason (and I’m still working out why) my true self does not want to step foot inside a church. I’m Ok with that.

Here are some other random things I’ve learned to say no to by listening to my body:

  • Christmas gifts (junk) for everyone I know.

  • Hallmark cards for every. single. holiday.

  • Baby showers. (If I show up at your baby shower, I really love you.)

  • Ditto on weddings. (I was actually in a wedding in December because my body said YES to that one.)

  • High heels.

  • Plastic water bottles.

  • My former job.

  • Volunteering.

  • The news.

  • Parties full of strangers, especially New Year’s Eve.

  • Competitive games.

Is saying no to all of these things vital to creating the life I want? Of course not. Some are more important than others. What is important is learning to recognize when my emotions and body are saying NO and trusting myself to follow through on that. Some are culturally more appropriate to say no to. (Say no to volunteering when there is clearly time available on your calendar? Gasp!) It doesn’t really matter, though. If you want to change your life, you are going to have to start paying attention and start saying no to things you may never have thought were optional.

It’s only by saying no to the things we want to leave behind that we find space to say yes to the things we want to bring into our lives.

So, your challenge this week is to spend some time listening to your emotions and your body. Notice when you feel that NO. Try to explore and understand it. What is that NO telling you about what you need to get rid of? Are you brave enough to follow through and do it?

Want to talk more? Send me an email at and we’ll connect!

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