Just say no

Nope, uh-uh, out of the question, no way, certainly not, forget it, under no circumstances, not gonna happen, sorry Charlie, ix-nay, when pigs fly, no can do, not for all the tea in China. With so many ways in the English language to say “no,” how is it that we take on extra responsibilities that cause us to be overwhelmed and stressed all the time?

The simple answer is, you and I are much too nice to answer, “Certainly not!” to your child’s kindergarten teacher when she asks you to be room parent. Nor would you be likely to tell your boss that you will take on an extra responsibility “when hell freezes over.” There are gentler ways to say no, however, that not only keep your career intact and promote social goodwill, but also preserve your self respect and precious sanity.

She can’t say no

Women have a harder time saying “no” to requests than men. It’s a fact. We feel more guilt and have greater societal pressure to be agreeable and helpful. Saying yes to be likeable or to be perceived as a team player can backfire, however. When we take on too much our performance suffers, which can be an obstacle for career advancement. (1) (Men are actually considered more likeable when they are assertive, (2) and are therefore socially rewarded when they turn down unwanted tasks. When men do not take their fair share of these tasks, there are more of those unappealing tasks for women to feel pressured to do. Let’s take a moment here to ponder the perverseness of social norms.)

Oh, to be bored!

How often in the last month have you gazed mournfully out the window, wishing you had something to do? Probably not since you were considerably shorter and had to be threatened to eat your veggies. Our culture prizes busyness. If you did not, on any given day, race around your community, volunteer at all three of your children’s classes, wrap up that project at work, take your son to a doctor’s appointment, make a quick trip to the dry cleaners, pick up kids at soccer practice, decorate for a daughter’s choir concert and grab some cold medicine at the pharmacy on the way home for your budding case of bronchitis, you are just a lazy slacker.

Saying no is a healthy path to stress relief. When we are overcommitted and under stress, we are more likely to run ourselves down and get sick. (3) You don’t have to say no to everything, of course, just prioritize and decide what things you can actually give time to. If the PTA needs someone to organize the annual Boogie Bash and you 1 – have the time and 2 – love that kind of thing, say yes! But be sure and say “no” if you get the urge to change your name and move to another state when you see the PTA president coming your way.

Gentle but firm ways to say “no”

  • I am sorry, but I cannot take that on right now.
  • That is a great cause, but it is not something I can do presently.
  • I wish I could help, but it is just not possible at this time.

Note that these ways to say no are short and devoid of excuses. Excuses are chinks in the armor of sanity preservation — as soon as you throw an excuse out there, you give someone a toehold to talk you into it. Have you ever tried to use an excuse on door-to-door salespeople? They jump on excuses like cheetahs on a wounded impala.

If you happen to be interested in doing the task but can’t fit it in now, say:

  • I would love to help, but I just can’t right now. Would you keep me in mind the next time something like this is needed?

However you express it, and even if it doesn’t come easily for you, learn to say “no” as frequently as needed to protect your time, your stress level and your health.


Gender and saying “no”

More ways to say “no”

Culture of busyness



  1. Boutelle C. Women find it more difficult to say “no” to excessive workplace requests. Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology website. Dec 3, 2014. Accessed Jan 6, 2017.
  2. Clay RA. Just say no. American Psychological Association website. Accessed Jan 6, 2017.
  3. Stress relief: When and how to say no. Mayo Clinic website. Accessed Jan 5, 2017.
Dana Vaughan

About Dana Vaughan

Dana completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a Master of Social Work (MSW) at San Diego State University, and has worked in family planning education, prenatal counseling, and child development. She loves her mountain bike, her husband, her kids, and her faith—although possibly not in that order.

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