How I learned the power of saying ‘No’

Why we should all reserve, and preserve, the right to politely decline
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How I learned the power of saying ‘No’

Smile. Be polite. Say ‘thank you.’ Be a good girl. Be a nice girl. Women are supposed to be nice. Women who aren’t nice and smiley and friendly and obliging are ‘difficult’, and nobody likes a difficult woman. You’ll never get anywhere in life with that kind of attitude…

The cruel irony is that you don’t get anywhere in life by being overly nice, a people-pleaser or a pushover, either. But from a young age we’re conditioned to believe that the only way to get anywhere in life, personally and professionally, is by saying “yes, please” and “thank you”. A cycle of asking for permission followed by expressing gratitude, with a healthy dose of being apologetic thrown in.

But a couple of months ago I had an epiphany of sorts after I stumbled upon an old article featuring British writer and journalist Pandora Sykes on Katherine Ormerod’s website, Work Work Work. The discipline of Pandora’s enviously regimented routine for writing, recording her podcast, and doing a vast array of other work-related activities at specific times, without fail, suggested someone who had spent a significant amount of time in the military. But her uncompromising attitude to working to her own schedule, not pandering to anyone else’s, and fitting her work into her life – rather than the other way round – struck a chord.

Ultimately, what she was conveying without explicitly saying, was that she had set boundaries in place, wasn’t looking for or asking for permission to achieve her goals, and, crucially, wasn’t afraid to say no to people, or ask them if they could find another way. Her way. My other hot take? Pandora’s attitude didn’t hinder her career.

In fact, you could argue her ability to put herself first helped her in the long run, because that’s the thing with boundaries – they’re not a negative thing, nor do they automatically mean you’re uncompromising or difficult to work with. Being able to say no to something or asking for an alternative solution shouldn’t be a privilege, but for many of us, agreeing to take on more than we can chew has always been the barometer of success. Chronic busyness is worn like a badge of honour, and if you start saying no to things, you start to fear the women lining up behind you who will say yes, without conditions.

And therein lies the difficultly – ‘no’ shouldn’t be a dirty word, so we need to change the collective narrative, once and for all, around a woman’s right to politely, and respectively, decline. Because saying no doesn’t mean you’re entitled, it means you’re empowered. And isn’t that what we’re all ultimately striving for?