How to Say ‘No’ When Your Plate is Full


We’re all enlightened and intelligent enough to understand what we have a right to and what we shouldn’t settle for. We feel comfortable declaring things like: No, I will not be treated as a second-class citizen. No, I will not accept unequal pay. No, I will not compromise my morals, ethics or personal boundaries.

But, it’s a tricky thing to say “no” when the stakes aren’t quite so high, when you’re not being bullied, violated or shoved. Instances when you receive speaking invitations you may not have time for, job offers you don't need, workshops to attend or chances to promote your work that could be great, but aren't necessary. In those cases you don’t have to say yes, but you do. And you should know that saying “no” because you’re not interested is reason enough.

Why is this so tough?

Because the fact that you have these options at all can make you feel so thrilled you feel obligated to do them. I know women who are so grateful to be doing the work they do that they feel it’s mandatory to do anything they’re asked. This can cause you to cave into saying “yes” to things when you really don’t want or need to. (After all, doing what you love can be a liability.)

I was interviewed on a radio show the other day and the very powerful, strong female host asked if I thought we even needed feminism anymore (she didn’t think so). We already have the right to work and vote and all of that. There are finally women CEOs (Marissa Mayer! Mary Barra!), women entrepreneurs and women millionaires. And yet there are nowhere near enough women doing what women can do because we remain cowed by what we believe we owe other people.

Can’t blame us, really. It’s how we’ve been raised and what our culture reinforces: That our job as a woman is to say “yes” to things. In my experience, the world doesn’t like when a woman turns it down, and so she better have a damn good reason. With that kind of expectation, whether it’s overt or implied, it’s no wonder we try to save ourselves the anguish of letting someone down by just saying yes, even when it’s the last thing we want to do. (By the way, this isn’t just true in our careers, but dating too.)

I say this, being in as tricky a position as you are: I’m ambitious, optimistic and I like to take on just a little more than I can handle. I believe that every opportunity may hold a gift inside and I fear that every missed opportunity could cost me. Being self-employed, I have a hard time saying “no” to almost anything. Who am I to not take this or that thing on offer?

But if you want to truly own your power and be self-possessed in every sense of the word, you need to evaluate the following.

“Can” and “Should” Don’t Cut It
So, you’ve been handed an opportunity and are wondering if you want to pursue it. Maybe you were flattered — or begged. But the thought of committing to this opportunity instantly makes you tired. It’s not that you’re afraid to do it or fear you can’t. You know you’d do a fantastic job. But meh, you really just don’t want to.

You technically could and it would be nice to (fill in lame excuse here), so you surrender to it. You say, “Fine,” and hope that it’s worth it while you throw all those hours that would have been yours to keep onto the funeral pyre of obligations and good deeds. Maybe you think it’s a career move. But if you find yourself “hoping” it will be, know that any business person worth their salt would say hope is not a payment. Next.

Beware the Twin Sirens of Money and Opportunity
Maybe you say, as I did, “Who am I to pass up work?” My question: Do you have to be a special person to say no? Does it make sense investing your time into something you’re not interested in doing?

A former colleague of mine recommended me for a contract PR gig several years ago when I first went out on my own. It was a hot lead, she said, “And you’d be perfect. It’ll be a nice chunk of change.” I felt flattered, sure, but also gripped by panic and loathing. I hate PR. It’s not my sweet spot. Sure I could do it, and the opportunity to work with this brand and get paid for it seemed great. I wanted to sound enterprising and energetic and ready for anything; I wanted to be as capable as she deemed me to be. So I said okay.

You know what I was? Miserable. I did get paid and the project came to its merciful end, but it also cost me three months of my life. My blood pressure spiked whenever the phone rang. I cried sometimes when I hung up. It was also the first summer of my life I didn’t set foot on a beach, not once.

Lose the Excuses
Stop giving them. Plain and simple. Everyone hates them anyway. Excuses are like stinky candles that get regifted over and over. So, spare us all. You’ll find a world of peace when you just start saying, “No thanks,” or “I’m sorry I won’t make it,” and nothing else. Stop talking. Let your decision stand without propping it up.

I know a woman I’ll call Sadie, who’s about as sweet as pie. She’s a yogi and do-gooder who travels to India every year to take care of orphans. She oozes goodness. When she turned down a night out with some friends, she didn’t give an excuse. She just said she wasn’t coming. Sure, a few were miffed by that (no doubt because they didn’t feel like going either), but I admired the decision. This woman goes out of her way for people who need her, and for what she’s passionate about. But this time? No thanks.

The power of no doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it only exists when you own it. Don’t let yourself get pushed into things, even if there’s no good reason. Decide what you want — and grant yourself the power to let the rest go.

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