Work Smarter//

How Learning to Say No at Work Saved My Life

Learning to say no has been one of the best things I have done for myself. Here's what it can do for you, too.

jayk7/Getty Images
jayk7/Getty Images

Now, at the age of 60, I often think how I began my own career: 31 years in high-pressure jobs for a highly-successful company. I was burned out. But why? It’s tempting to blame my company or the nature of the type of work I chose to do — public relations. If I’m honest with myself, my burnout was largely self-inflicted. Not that I was aiming to hurt myself. I had simply convinced myself that “consistently exceeding expectations” was the secret to my success.

I became an iron man, able to take on any assignment, respond promptly to every email message, start my days with conference calls with colleagues in U.K. and end my days with conference calls with the same colleagues — after they’d had a full night’s sleep. I could do all this while grabbing lunch at my desk and living on coffee. My job demanded it, and getting ahead depended on never saying no.

It worked. Twenty-eight years into my career, I earned my VP stripe. At last, after nearly three decades of running full-tilt, I’d grabbed the brass ring.

At what price?

I was a wreck. I was at least 40 pounds overweight. I had to take blood pressure medication. I worked seven days a week. Most evenings I missed dinner with my family. I never coached my kids’ sports teams. I grew distant from my friends. I gave up vacation time, and when I went on vacation, I couldn’t unplug.

All the while, the people in my organization were watching me. It still troubles me to think that many of them no doubt concluded that this is how you get ahead. But I was worn out. I could not go on. And so when I had the chance to take early retirement, I did. Now I’m enjoying an active retirement. I’m healthy and living at my own pace.

If you feel guilty and uncomfortable saying no at work, you’re not alone. You may think people will dislike you, think you are entitled, or question whether you are a team player. It seems paradoxical, but saying no strategically and respectfully can help your career.

In fact, in my professional experience and life in general I’ve identified three steps for learning to say no before it’s too late for our well-being.

1. Knowing the Roots of These Personal Boundaries

Saying no doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Saying no doesn’t mean that you are being rude, selfish, or unkind. These are all unhelpful beliefs that make it hard to say no.

Learning where these beliefs have come from is a great way to learn to let go of them.

As children, we learned that saying no was impolite or inappropriate.

If you said no to your mom, dad, teacher, uncle, grandparents, and so on, you were most certainly considered to be being rude, and you would have probably been told off for it.

Saying no was off limits, and yes was the polite and likable thing to say.

Now that we are all adults, we are more mature and capable of making our own choices, as well as knowing the difference between wrong and right. Therefore, no shouldn’t be an off limits word, but rather something that we decide on ourselves, based on our own discretion.

But sadly, we hold onto our childhood beliefs and we continue to associate no with being unlikeable, bad-mannered, unkind, or selfish. We worry that if we say no, we will feel humiliated, guilty, or ashamed, and will end up being alone, rejected, or abandoned.

2. Knowing Your Value

The second step to learning to say no is realizing that you are valuable and choosing your own opinion about yourself over others.

I have learned that if you live your life depending on other people’s approval, you will never feel free and truly happy.

If you depend on other people’s approval, what you are basically saying is, “Their opinion of me is more important than my opinion about myself.”

If your opinion of yourself is actually quite low, remember that:

  • Your problems do not define you.
  • It’s okay to make mistakes  —  nobody is perfect, and everybody does things that they regret; this is what makes us human.
  • What makes a person great is not their looks or achievements, but their willingness to love others, be humble, and grow as a person.
  • You are unique, valuable, and important. No one else in this world can offer what you can.

3. Is Saying Yes Really Worth It?

The third step to learning to say no is deciding if saying yes is really worth it.

After committing to something, doubt eventually sets in and you may begin to think of ways you can get out of it.

And if you don’t have any good excuses, you then have to decide if you are going to tell the truth or come up with a lie.

Think about the anguish, stress, and resentment that saying yes has caused you. Wouldn’t it be so much easier and straightforward to just say no in the first place?

I remember this one time that I said yes to something and then later felt so bad about it that I ended up lying my way out of it. I still feel bad that I lied.

My boss called me one day and was asked if I could work the following Saturday. As usual, I blurted out a polite, “Yes, of course, that’s no problem at all.” I actually had plans with my girlfriend, which I was really looking forward to.

“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you’re not saying ‘no’ to yourself.

Paulo Coelho

Later, I found myself feeling absolutely terrible about having said yes and I wished that I had just had the guts to say no from the beginning.

Dreading the idea of having to work that day, I called my boss back with the best excuse I could think of. I told her that I had completely forgotten that it was my dad’s birthday that Saturday and that we had a family get-together.

Looking back, I realize that it really isn’t worth it to say yes when you don’t want to. I have a right to say no and shouldn’t be afraid of letting other people down at the cost of my own happiness.

If you have also decided that it’s worth it to you, and want to learn to say no, try these simple yet effective tips for doing so with confidence.

Helpful Tips for Saying No

  • Be direct, such as “no, I can’t” or “no, I don’t want to.”
  • Don’t apologize and give all sorts of reasons.
  • Don’t lie. Lying will most likely lead to guilt  —  and remember, this is what you are trying to avoid feeling.
  • Remember that it is better to say no now than be resentful later.
  • Be polite, such as “Thanks for asking.”
  • Practice saying no. Imagine a scenario and then practice saying no either by yourself or with a friend. This will get you feeling a lot more comfortable with saying no.
  • Don’t say “I’ll think about it” if you don’t want to do it. This will just prolong the situation and make you feel even more stressed.
  • Remember that your self-worth does not depend on how much you do for other people.

Learning to say no has been one of the best things I have done for myself. Not only has it challenged me to overcome my fear of rejection, it has helped me to feel in control.

I don’t feel trapped, resentful, or guilty anymore. Instead, I feel empowered and free.

If you want that same feeling of freedom and empowerment, then take control, challenge yourself, and learn to say no.

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