How I taught myself to start saying “no” and setting boundaries

My first word was “no.” It might seem weird that something negative was my first attempt at communication, but “no” is actually a very a common first word. This makes sense to me for many reasons. First, it’s one of the most simple words to master in any language. Second, it is a highly effective way of communicating your desires. You can see its immediacy once you start to use it. As far as words go, it’s almost like a protective talisman between you and the things you don’t want in your life, which is very important when you’re a small child without a lot of power or autonomy.

But after a certain point, I stopped saying it as much. Looking back, this is because of a few reasons. Growing up and having to listen to what the adults in your life tell you as opposed to your own internal whims, you have a lot less freedom to say no (try telling any elementary school teacher or parent no in regard to homework and see how far you get). It also seems to unfortunately come from how we’re socialized as women. Growing up a woman, society (indirectly and directly) has made me feel like I’m the protector of everyone else’s emotions, even though I know that’s not fair or true. It’s hard to say when exactly, but as my teen years slipped away from me and I found myself in my twenties, I noticed that saying no stopped being about my protection. “No” became a thing I couldn’t let myself say because I felt too scared to hurt others. The worst part was I knew I wasn’t alone. I saw women all over my life dealing with this inability to say no, too.

Whether it was going out of their way to help people who didn’t deserve it, enduring rude treatment from a friend or coworker because saying no would hurt their feelings, or being nice to a guy who made them uncomfortable, I started to realize the loss of no is a loss of autonomy. Saying no might seem too direct and brusque to many people, but the alternative is the expectation that we suffer in silence to protect others who might not have our best interests in mind. Besides that, the flip side to not saying no was that many people thought I was saying yes when in reality, I wasn’t saying anything at all. I found myself in so many situations I didn’t want to be in all the while cursing my lack of response. Because the truth is, if even if I felt like I wasn’t able to say no definitively, I’d still say it in other ways with lack of enthusiasm, procrastination, and resentment, all of which only hurt me in the long run.

But then one day I had enough. I decided I was only going to say yes to the things I sincerely wanted to do, and a polite and direct no to the things I didn’t. Initially it seemed scary, and the first couple times I tried it I felt like some cartoon super villain hidden away in a lair, firing off no into the ether and cackling maniacally. “No, I won’t help you move.” “No, I won’t spot you $20.” “No, I can’t go out for drinks, I have class in the morning.” Despite the fact I knew I shouldn’t have it in the first place, my guilt was immense.

But then a strange thing happened. When I said no to things, I didn’t have to do them. And that was the end of the discussion. No one was chasing me down demanding answers for my lack of accommodation like I expected they would. The no’s were simply accepted as the answer. And even stranger still, learning to say no made yes that much sweeter. By saying no more often, it meant that if I was participating in something or helping someone else, I was in it with all my heart. It felt so much better than my begrudging compliance of the past.

So even if it feels weird or scary, if you have ever been feeling the way I just described, try saying no. There is nothing wrong with that first word that taught us what boundaries meant. It is there for us and it is there to protect us, so we might as well use it.