When I was a little girl, my grandfather nicknamed me "Madame No". Apparently, I was such a contrarian at the time that every other word that came out my mouth was intended to decline. Ironically, after that age, I grew rather uncomfortable telling people "no". You see, I'm a true people pleaser — I am my happiest and most relaxed when those around me are content. To this day, I still feel nervous turning people away, or making excuses to get out of plans. I hate doing anything that might cause conflict, especially if my actions are the root of the problem.
Now that I'm old enough to recognize this attitude and engrained behavior, I'm doing my best to learn how to better stand up for myself. The fact of the matter is: It is physically exhausting and all together impossible to say "yes" to absolutely everything. Sometimes, self-care means knowing when it's OK to say "no", and when it's healthy for you to walk away, even when you feel a sense of obligation. Nothing, and no one, should come before your own mental wellness, because if you aren't first and foremost serving yourself, you can't expect yourself to serve others.
Below, nine women share the very first time they felt comfortable saying "no", and their stories are inspiring.
1. Regan, 40
"I was 30 years old when I said no to a job 4.25 days after I started it and earned the nickname “one week Walsh”. I started the job on a Monday and by Thursday I was so depressed. It wasn’t how I was supposed to be spending my days and I knew I needed to make a drastic change. That Friday morning, I found myself sitting in a windowless conference room listening in on a four-hour conference call. Halfway through I looked at my new boss and said “I don’t want this job, I need to go find my path” and his response was “I am so jealous”. I walked home through the park a few moments later and saw a man dressed as a clown, riding a unicycle. I haven’t stopped saying no to people and opportunities that don’t align with my values ever since. Saying no to that job ranks as one of the best moments of my life. Today I make all my yeses count, and say no to the rest."
2. Arleana, 35
"It was hard for me to say no. Heck, I even had it on on my bucket list. I struggled, always wanting to help and didn't realize it was draining me.
The first time I said no was when my sister called me to do some paperwork at an odd hour of the night, and mind you I would get up and do whatever she needed, whenever she needed me, no matter what I was doing. I wanted to help and support. I told her no and felt so guilty that I couldn't even sleep. But, I knew I had to get use to saying no more.
Now, I'm so good at saying no. I say no without an explanation. The power of being able to say no is powerful."
3. Alissa, 23
"As a professional musician and performer, it's no secret that breaking into the music industry and maintaining a successful career is difficult. When I first started pursuing music seriously, I agreed to every opportunity and offer, no matter the pay, the time commitment, or whether it was really something I wanted to do. I found myself working really hard, but not effectively or efficiently, and was just worn out. The first time I felt comfortable saying no and turning down a show opportunity was empowering. I was offered much less money than my standard pay rate and even though the venue argued that all the other musicians agreed to that rate, I was confident in my value. I was not going to sell myself short or underprice my work just so I could fill another date in my calendar."
4. Juliann, 27
"When men ask me for my number, I usually get really uncomfortable and quick to use the "I have a boyfriend" card because I think it spares feelings. However, I read an interesting article once that taught me that when I do this, I am essentially saying "I have no say in what I want because I am spoken for by another man." With this in mind, I made it a mission to simply say, "I'm not interested" when a man asks me for my number.
I once worked in an administrative role at a private counseling agency and I am very friendly with clients. ... As per practice, I call up a client, lets name him Richard, to see if he will make it to his upcoming appointment. He says he has to re-schedule. As I'm trying to accommodate him into the schedule, he starts putting on the moves and casually asks me for my number. I then (kindly, if I may add) told him that that was sweet and thanked him for the compliments, but then let him know that that was not going to happen. He sounded a little surprised and asked me why. My feminist, empowered brain kicked into high gear and I remembered the article and proudly said the three words that I vowed to use: I'm not interested.
But it backfired! Following my courageous words was the longest awkward silence. I felt triumphant up until the silence was broken with Richard laughing and saying, "Oh wow, this must be really embarrassing for you. I did not mean it like that."
I got so upset. How did he turn this around and embarrass me? As if I did something wrong. Telling guys that you're not interested may be the right thing to do in theory, but hella hard when putting it into practice. This did beat down my confidence but I figured that I shouldn't let one guy define my experience. I tried it again later at a coffee shop where someone was persistent in getting my number and after thanking him for the compliment, I simply stated that I wasn't interested. I stood my ground and he eventually backed off. It felt great!"
5. Maria, 55
"It took me until age 50 to feel comfortable saying no. As a woman in long-term recovery from alcoholism, we are taught that 'no' is a complete sentence. As a recovering people-pleaser, that was, in practice, a very difficult thing for me to say. I am a rape survivor and spent years mired in self-loathing. I continually sought outside affirmation to feel better about myself. I do that less now, but wish I had grown a better backbone earlier in life."
6. Sadia, 45
"The first time I felt comfortable saying no"no was when I filed a small claims civil law suit against my ex-boyfriend. I had rented a car for him to drive to a work related event and he decided not to turn it back in on the day designated.
Not only that, he was pulled over and found to be driving without his license. So the car was impounded. The rental car company was charging my card per day of non-return and for the impound fees. His plan that the organization he worked for to reimburse me didn't materialize and he was broke. Once he was served with notice of the suit, he called and told me that if I went through with it he would lose respect for me. Seeing that this was another manipulation tactic, I moved forward and refused to drop the claim against him. What did I care about his respect at this point? He had shown me that neither I nor the debt he caused was of concern to him."
7. Grace, 30
"The first time I said no with complete self-assurance was to my alcoholic ex who wanted to get back together for the thirteenth time. I was pregnant with his child and he refused to get help for his drinking. It was the right decision for me — to love our baby more than him. I didn't want to raise a child in an alcoholic home. I am glad I said no. Me and our child live happily without [him] and without the alcohol."
8. Alisha, 28
"The first time I felt comfortable saying no was when I was 10. I had been asked to play a song on the piano for a showcase of promising piano students at a local mall. I said no to the invitation because the event fell on a Saturday and that was the day that I attended church with my family and believed should be kept holy. I remember feeling empowered and being proud of myself because I stood strong in my beliefs."
9. Davielle, 31
"A year ago, I was ready to close my business when numerous product demands created significant obstacles for growth. As the owner of a natural feminine care product, I thought I was on the road to financial success when I secured a [store's] supplier purchasing deal at the age of 26, followed by a deal with [another store]. However, due to the company’s on-time, in-full change obstacles, I have now decided to make a business pivot and offer my product and feminine health care message directly to the consumer by introducing a subscription service. I tried to keep up with the orders but as a small business this was not possible. I finally had to say 'enough! I cannot meet your new demands'.
My decision to say 'no' to these demands took a great deal of courage but the 'no' lead to the opening of new opportunities and regaining my business confidence."
Saying "no" doesn't always come easy. Women are socially conditioned to be people-pleasers, and unlearning this behavior can be a huge challenge for some. But as you can see from the inspiring stories above, it can also be incredibly empowering and rewarding.