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Learning How to Say ‘NO’

This collage of ‘no’s was collected on a very short walk around the suburb this morning, so it seems like there’s no shortage of ways to say it.

So why is it so hard sometimes?

For such a little word, it can seem like quite a big one…

Sometimes, in an effort to ‘get along’ or be polite or to smooth things over, we can find ourselves saying yes to all sorts of things we’d rather not do. Like taking on extra work, when we’re already overrun with it. Or accepting invitations to events we’d rather not attend. Or doing the family’s emotional housework.

But the funny thing is that, even if you imagine yourself to be the kind of person who has a lot of trouble saying no, odds are, you’re already saying it. Plenty of times.

How can this be true? 

Well, even though they’re opposites, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ usually travel together. For as philosophy points out, to say ‘yes’ to one thing means, simultaneously, to say ‘no’ to all others. ‘Yes’ to this automatically means ‘no’ to a whole lot of other options. It’s a pretty powerful reframe.

So when you think you’re saying ‘yes,’ you’re also saying ‘no’ anyway. Which means you’re actually already pretty fluent with it.

So maybe it’s more the kind of ‘no’ that’s worth looking at. For if you’re saying yes to everyone else’s needs first, then you’re probably speaking a lot of big internal ‘no’s.

For instance, yes to that dinner with those people you hardly know means no to an evening at home.
Yes to taking on yet another project means no to time off.
Yes to being the family peacemaker can mean no for getting your own needs met.
Yes to meeting all sorts of obligations or pressures can mean no to having enough time for what’s really important to you.

Equally, when you’re saying no to one thing, you might also be saying yes to others.

So maybe it’s worth just noticing how you negotiate both the yes and the no in your life. To become more conscious of these decisions as opportunities when they arise. To get clear about exactly what it is you might be saying no to, before you speak the word ‘yes.’ And vice versa.

And maybe it’s also worth actually practicing saying no out aloud. Even on your own. Just getting used to the feel of it in your mouth. Shifting it from an internal no to an external one.

Maybe seeing how many different tones you can use to say it.
What it’s like when you pad it out with lots of other words and justifications.
And what it’s like to say just on its own.

Or maybe you can use visualization as a tool to run through some different scenarios in your mind.
If you were to paint a sign with ‘no’ on it, like some of the signs in the collage above, what would each particular ‘no’ look like?
What colours would you use?
What size would they be?
Would certain ‘no’s be too big or too small to work effectively?
What kind of ‘no’ would work best in this situation?

So perhaps ‘no’ is not as hard a word as it might seem after all.

Perhaps it also contains the promise of ‘yes’, too.

And maybe if you don’t ‘no’ you’ll never know…


Photo: Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar

Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar (Grad Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy) is a Sydney psychotherapist in private practice at One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also co-facilitates telephone support groups for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience. She is the editor of a journal on counselling and psychotherapy and she provides regular therapeutic updates on facebook and Twitter @OneLifeTherapy.

Learning How to Say ‘NO’

Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar

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APA Reference
Gawne-Kelnar, G. (2010). Learning How to Say ‘NO’. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Oct 2010
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