Saying No and Having Boundaries

In my last post, I advocated saying no to free labor. I wrote:

“Your services and expertise are worth money. When people ask what you charge, you tell them your rate. If they don’t want to pay it, you can say no.”

Saying no sounds easy, but in reality, saying no is one of those ninja level adult skills that many of us struggle to master. Most of us have learned to say yes to things when we really want to say no. Women, in particular, have a hard time saying no because we’re socialized to take care of everyone but ourselves. (And that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.) For some people, the inability to say no manifests as extreme people pleasing at any cost. When you’ve spent your whole life laboring under the assumption that saying yes and making other people happy is the only way to get your needs met, you’ll probably say yes to just about anything in order to keep the peace and feel like you’re a worthy human being.

We say yes when we want to say no because of the emotional discomfort of saying no. We feel like terrible people unless we’re helping others. We can’t handle feeling that guilty. Here’s the thing: guilt is a natural emotion to experience when we’ve done something wrong and harmed someone else. Unhelpfully, guilt also shows up when we haven’t done anything wrong at all. To recap, just because you feel guilty about  something doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong. A lot of us have some miswired emotional circuits that make guilt (both deserved and undeserved) feel like shame. Our brains interpret, “I’ve said no and now I’ve done something wrong,” as “I said no and I am a terrible person.”

Allow me to take this opportunity to assure you that saying no doesn’t make you a terrible person. It makes you a person who cares about yourself.

Saying no does not make you an asshole.


What actually makes you an asshole is when you say yes when you want to say no and then you’re angry and resentful about it and hate yourself and everyone else and act like an asshole because you’re mad.

Brene Brown has a truly marvelous idea about the power of creating boundaries and saying no. She argues that if you’re saying yes when you want to say no, you set yourself up for resentment. If you’re angry and resentful towards someone you said yes to when you wanted to say no, you’re unable to act with compassion towards others. It’s an ugly place to be. Saying no creates boundaries that in turn, create space for compassion. (You can find the video here.)

I hereby give you (by which I mean me) permission to say no to anyone at anytime for any reason.

Here are some suggestions for how to say no:

  • Be direct. You’re not helping the other person, yourself, or the situation by hedging, saying you’ll “think” about it, or saying something mushy like “maybe.” Ditto for excuses. If it makes you feel better to give a reason to say no, give a reason, but do know that you don’t have to. Saying no is enough by itself. There’s no reason to manufacture scenarios in which you absolutely cannot do the thing that someone wants. Saying no could just be as simple as, “I have too many projects right now. I’m going to have to say no.”

  • Use your words. It’s taken me a long time to figure out that unless I tell people what I think and feel, they don’t actually know. Passive-aggressive behavior is incredibly unattractive. Name what you’re thinking, feeling, and doing. Acting out is not what any of us should be doing as adults.

  • Cultivate emotional tolerance. We say yes when we want to say no because we can’t stand feeling guilty, as if not helping other people at our own expense is somehow hurting them. One way around this is to build up your tolerance for hard feelings. Feeling guilty about saying no? Well, okay. Name it. Admit that you’re uncomfortable and feel bad. Be mindful. Where does the emotion show up in your body? How does it feel? Just watch it. Just because you feel bad doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or that you have to do anything about it. Sit with the feeling. Mediate on it. How bad does it feel? Sort of bad? Really bad? What will happen if you feel bad? Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you realize that nothing bad is happening because you said no.

  • Celebrate successes. One of the most empowering things ever is saying no. Saying no to situations and people that exploit you is incredibly satisfying. Someone wants some free labor from you? Tell them no, walk away, and feel awesome that you’re looking out for your best interests.

Again, if you’re just coming out of academia, saying no will probably feel a little weird. As an academic, you’re supposed to say yes to everything and everyone in order to make your CV longer and more substantial. Not only are you supposed to say yes to everything, but the people around you expect that you’ll say yes to all kinds of things that they want you to do at your expense. You might recognize this model as exploitation and you would be right. One of the truly empowering things about being an ex-academic is this: you don’t have to participate in exploitative labor practices. [At least, to the extent that any of us still have any personal agency within our current neoliberal paradigm. We are all on different paths towards becoming some kind of Uber driver or Task Rabbit in the gig economy.]

Let me also add that sometimes saying no does have some consequences beyond just feeling guilty. Under normal circumstances, you should be able to say no freely and without consequence. In certain situations, saying no carries significant risk. Sometimes when you say no to people, they retaliate and the repercussions can be severe. If you find yourself in a situation in which you can’t say no freely without immense personal or professional consequences, you’re being coerced. Coerced labor is the extreme version of labor exploitation and hinges on power inequalities. It’s not fair and it shouldn’t happen to anyone. I’m currently writing a piece about saying no to a coercive request for free labor from a big scholar in my field and the professional consequences that followed.

If you’re saying yes to things that you don’t want to do out of fear of displeasing others or trying to avoid feeling like a jerk, you’re saying no to other things. You’re prioritizing other people and their stuff over yourself and your stuff.  Saying no to things that you genuinely don’t want opens up space to say yes to that which you do want.

Let’s remember this famous phrase: just say no. And then do it.