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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

No, I don’t want to.

No, I’m not going to.

No, I can’t.

No, I won’t.

En. Oh. Spells No.

No means no.

Do you ever wonder why no is one of the first words we learn to say as kids, and one of the last ones we use comfortably as adults?

When do we stop gleefully saying NO! every time someone tells us to pick up our toys/say thank you/get off the swing/kiss someone hello/eat all the food on our plates, and start agreeing to things that our minds are still saying no to but our mouths refuse to utter?

I know we can’t just go around doing whatever we want and saying no. I’m not talking about anarchy.

No, I don’t want to pay my taxes, but I’m going to, because you have to. The alternative is worse.

No, I don’t want to get up at 6 and do yoga, but I’m going to, because it keeps me healthy and feels better later.

No, I don’t want to pick up my toys, but yes, I do like to occasionally walk through a room without tripping over things, so I’m going to do it anyway.

I’m not talking about refusing.

I’m talking about the freedom to say no to things that don’t put us in a better place physically or emotionally, don’t pay off for us, or, in fact, are detrimental to us, that don’t make us happy, that sometimes don’t make anyone happy.

Remember the last time someone asked you for a favor. Remember how you wanted to say no, but there was way too much emotional baggage attached. Remember how all the thoughts went through your head about how you would have to give up something you wanted to do, in order to make time for what someone else wanted you to do. Remember how maybe you felt a teeny bit resentful about being asked, as if it was the other person’s fault for making you feel bad and not your own for agreeing to do something you wanted to say no to, but didn’t even respect yourself enough to listen.

This is not a diatribe against doing favors for people.

I mean, truthfully, sometimes doing things you don’t want to do has its own rewards. I may want to say no to someone, but I say yes instead and then I have the satisfaction of knowing I’ve helped them in some way, made their lives a little better or easier, reinforced our bond, given something back when so many people have given things to me even though they probably wanted to say no, too. Wanting to say no isn’t always a mandate to actually say no.

If I said no every time the word came into my head, I’d never leave the house again, never eat another piece of broccoli, probably never get out of bed.

I’m talking about how we don’t give ourselves permission to say no when we need to. How there is so much obligation and guilt wrapped up in it that it’s almost impossible to say.

Maybe you are completely assertive and perfectly diplomatic and utterly self-confident, and have no problem whatsoever with the word no.

If that’s the case then I want your therapist’s name.

If not, I bet you can relate to feeling an almost religious yearning to be agreeable by avoiding that horrible, negative word.

I said no to someone recently.

A hard no.

Hard, in the sense that it was difficult, and hard, in the sense that it was uncompromising.

The circumstances are irrelevant. A week later it still haunts me, not least because it didn’t go over well.

A week later, I’m still trying to figure out how I can undo it.

I’m not going to.

I said it for a reason, and it was a well-thought-out reason. I had a lot of conversations with myself about it beforehand, came up with a lot of whys and what ifs. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to say it, that I wouldn’t be asked to say it.

But when the time came to choose, every ounce of everything in my being pushing so hard to just say yes and be a good girl, so hard it blurred my vision, I still said no.

I’m both proud of myself and horrified by myself.

I know this is abstract but I don’t want to be specific because the point is not to have someone say oh, you made the right decision, or good for you, you stood up for yourself. Maybe it was a terrible decision and maybe I was just being selfish. You’ll never know.

The point is that it brought into stark relief how complicated our relationship is with the word no. And how difficult it can be to say even when we really, really, really want to.

It reminds me of someone I knew who refused to ask their child to hug or kiss friends or relatives. It caused no small amount of consternation among those friends and relatives, because that’s what you do, when someone visits, when you stop by for coffee, when you’re invited for Christmas dinner, when they give you a present. You kiss them hello or hug them goodbye. You demonstrate your thanks.

What kind of awful people would let their kid say no when Aunt Beulah went in for a kiss? What awful people wouldn’t say, be nice, kiss your aunt?

People who wanted their child to have agency, that’s who. People who knew that one day their kid was going to grow up and be in a room of people pressuring them to do something they wouldn’t want to do, or in a room with one person pressuring them to do something they wouldn’t want to do, or just in a room by themselves trying to decide what to do.

I’m not suggesting that the reason we have trouble saying no as adults is because our parents made us kiss Aunt Beulah even though she had a hairy little wart on her chin that really freaked us out. I’m not saying that we’re not a little better off for being prompted to display some social grace.

I am saying it’s complicated. And sometimes you just have to say no, even though it has probably been beaten out of your skull at an early age, countered every time with “be a good girl, be a good boy.”

A few days ago I was not a good girl.

I made people mad.

But in the end I made myself much happier, even if I’m going to feel awful and guilty about it for a little while longer.

So no, I don’t wish I said yes, and no, I’m not going to eat everything on my plate because do you have any idea how many hours on the Peloton it takes to work it all off, and no I don’t want to watch any more of that stupid TV show, and no, for anyone who might be wondering, I never had an Aunt Beulah, but it does make a compelling argument to say no to kissing, even if her present to you was really, really, really cool.

Photo: no, we do not want to come out and play!