The Power of “No”

power of no

By MJ Ali

Do you remember the first time you heard the word “no”? For many, it was a boundary being set by an adult. And, as children, the first time we used the word “no” was usually a reaction to boundary setting we didn’t agree with!

The tiny word “no” is one of the most powerful words in any language, but it’s gotten a really bad rap over the years. As we grew up, our use of the word “no” didn’t really grow up with us.

“No” is typically seen as excluding, negating, denying, as a shutdown. But we rarely think of “no” as empowering, freeing, inclusive, and a positive example when used in the right context, in the right way, for the right reasons.

Saying “no” is not typically an easy or comfortable thing to do. Getting to the point where you can do it without needing to breathe into a paper bag is a process, and that takes practice.

Knowing why we say “yes” when we really need to say “no” is half the battle. Once we know why, and observe what our bodies tell us when we imagine saying “no” (do we feel an immediate release of tension, and where, for example?) we’re provided with a lot of valuable information we can work with. 

Often, the motivation to say “yes” when “no” is the better option has to do with work: 

• Fear of losing job/clients

• Not being considered for a promotion

• Becoming invisible 

In our personal lives, our reasons for saying “yes” instead of “no” in different situations are much more complex. Family dynamics, and the place we hold in them, present a far more challenging relational landscape. Identifying when to say “no” may involve taking a look at some deeper, harder-to-get-at issues. 

Self-checks might include:

• Hurting feelings

• Stepping out of established role expectations

• Fear of missing out (FOMO)


Fear of not being needed (link takes you to an article by the 14th Dalai Lama)

Asking these kinds of questions helps us map out our own “no” zones—those areas of your life where you’re overextended–and helps determine how we honor overall balance and health. It’s part of setting healthy boundaries. Just one “no” used to set a healthy boundary can open the door to a different stream of healthier “yes” opportunities.

Practicing “no” affords us the opportunity to (among other things):

• Imagine the possibilities

• Nurture ourselves 

• Realize much better directed energy and attention

The power of “no” can also extend to not doing something that drains our energy unnecessarily. “Enjoy the Freedom Not To” by Dr. Rick Hanson provides some great examples, including arguing, self-criticism, and worrying what other people think of you.

I invite you to practice saying “no”. This New York Times article provides some great examples of how you can practice in non-critical situations, including how to be more assertive in how you convey your “no”. Are you ambivalent or tentative, leaving room for interpretation and setting a tone of uncertainty, for example, or do you make our response clear? Reading deeper into this article will also quell any fears you may have about being too assertive. Apparently, our self-perceptions about that aren’t so great! That’s good news!

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