Opinion: Saying no does not make you selfish or unkind

“Balance scale” by Sepehr Ehsani is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I say no often and without guilt. It has become one of the things I am most proud of myself for. While people often attribute saying no to appearing selfish or unkind, knowing your limits and when to say no can ultimately allow you to demonstrate kindness to others in a way that does not drain you. 

Whether it is saying no in a social context or in an academic and/or professional situation, being able to say no is fundamental for your own mental health. Knowing when to say no can be, strangely enough, better for everyone involved. 

I cannot tell you objectively when it is right or wrong for you to say no, that is ultimately up to you and your conscience. However, if you are in a situation where you want to say no but are worried about appearing selfish or about how the other person may take your refusal, you may want to take a minute to consider the value you place on your time and the boundaries you have between you and your social and professional life.

In the past I have had difficulty with saying no to my friends. This would end with me being upset at myself and, indirectly, at my friends – which was not fair to anyone involved. I now know myself well enough to know that if I hang out with someone and don’t want to, it will inevitably show. I learned to know when it is right for me to say no to hanging out with or helping my friends, that way when I do say yes, they know it is because I genuinely want to be around and help them. 

If you already communicate with your friends well, these can be some of the easier times to be candid. Very often, saying no and being transparent to people you do not know as well can be, frankly, the worst. For instance, when someone has informed you that they like you in a romantic sense and you don’t feel the same, it is inevitably terrible for everyone involved. Of course, being honest here and saying no in a kind manner is important. While there is definitely a way you can do it in a respectful and kind manner, making excuses to soften the delivery is a common but somewhat concerning practice. It is the dreaded “I like you, but… [insert excuse here].” Sometimes these explanations are true, but often the preface to the refusal happens because saying no can be an uncomfortable and even scary thing. 

I am not condemning the feeling of not wanting to offend someone – I am concerned about the environment in which one does not feel safe in explicitly saying no. While this can happen for everyone, women, especially, often feel the need to carefully preface how they say no. 

I may know when to say no and pride myself on not being unnecessarily apologetic, but I, too, have had to make excuses alongside my refusal because I did not feel safe. On one particular occasion, I was asked out by a man who would not take no for an answer. After my repeated “thank you, but no.” I finally had to use the “actually, I have a boyfriend.” After this statement, he stopped asking and moved on. I had, once again, been forced to hide behind the profile of a fake boyfriend. 

I have also had friends tell me that people have made them feel bad for saying no to their advances. My friend said, “Sorry, but you aren’t really my type,” and was met with “God, you are such a b****.” Unfortunately, many women are able to relate to this. The space that we have made for people, and especially women, to say no is not a safe or comfortable one. You should not feel as if you are a bad or unkind person for saying no, but, unfortunately, it often feels like that. 

In addition to learning when it is right for you to say no, it is also important to try to create a more comfortable space for our friends to say no. If we create a wider narrative in which saying no is completely acceptable and not attributed to being selfish, we will be able to create a safer and more mentally conscious space for everybody. I should not have to use a nonexistent man to get my point across, and my friends should not be made to feel that they are unkind by saying no. 

The foundation of both learning how to and feeling safe about saying no in social contexts can also set you up to say no in professional settings.

Saying no to academic/professional situations can feel fundamentally wrong, especially on a small college campus where the high levels of stress and excessive involvement are seen as indicators of success instead of something possibly concerning. Saying no to a club, a leadership position, a research opportunity or any resume-building activity often seems simply unthinkable. Sure, you might be miserable now, but later will you be a better job candidate? 

If anything seems to be a clear indicator for unhealthy work-life balance and mental health issues, this is it. 

I have seen this in myself and in others on campus. At the risk of disappointing others or maybe yourself, you will sign up for a position or obligation you cannot handle – or at least cannot handle with your mental health in check. 

There are a few different consequences to this: your sleep habits and mental health may suffer in the effort to meet the requirements or you may simply not meet the requirements. As it sometimes happens, both happen simultaneously. You are miserable and someone has to pick up your slack. You cost others time and inconvenience. You cost yourself stress and negative productivity. The consequences may not be as bad in college as someone else in your club or organizations will pick up the slack – and possibly loathe you for it – and you will just receive disapproving looks. In the workforce, however, it will clearly harbor significant repercussions. 

We are often told to take every opportunity we can. Experiences and opportunities are glorified for their future payoff. However, that future payoff is somewhat diminished if the present moment is affecting your mental health in a serious way. I, personally, would like to take some time to glorify a decent amount of sleep, a conducive work-life balance and healthy relationships with boundaries.  

This is obviously easier said than done, but once you are aware of it, it is easier to start to recognize when you may need to take a step back. In addition to checking in with yourself, I would recommend checking in with your friends who may tend to say yes to everyone – those who say yes, not because they should, but because they are scared of what happens when they don’t. Learning to say no is not just an individual action, we need to create a widespread narrative in which saying no is an accepted thing. No one should feel as though they are a selfish or unkind person for setting necessary and healthy boundaries for themselves. 

Hannah Koehler

Hannah Koehler is the page editor for Arts & Culture on The Hilltop Monitor. She is a senior majoring in English and psychological science.

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