Women Need to Say "No" More Often

Like D.A.R.E. taught you — just say no.
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Mary Ruth
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Like D.A.R.E. taught you — just say no.

I was a scrawny, freshly-minted fourteen-year-old when I first confronted a profound weakness of mine — the inability to say no. My parents sent me to a fine arts camp to hone my — super trendy and cool — clarinet skills. Besides the usual woodland-hell bonding activities and orchestra practice, there was an event that had every nerd at camp in a frenzy: the dance. We (the girls) gossiped and fussed over who would ask us, awaiting the moment when we turned our name badges upside down — the band-camp equivalent of an engagement ring.

One fateful day I came crashing into my cabin in high distress: someone had asked me to the dance. 

My cabin mates were initially excited. "Who is it? 

"My stand partner!" I moaned. 

Context: my stand partner was a grade-A dweeb (this coming from a painfully dweeby kid). Not yet twelve – a child, in my world-weary eyes – he fell out of the puberty tree and hit every branch on the way down: Acne. A drain-pipe voice. The metal wire of his braces wrapped around empty gums in places his adult teeth had yet to come in. 

In retrospect, this boy had balls of steel to ask someone a foot taller and three years his senior to a dance and, while I piddle around on Facebook, he is now most likely working for Google and just invented the next big app in the time it took me to resentfully hate-like someone else's picture perfect life. Unable to see his potential, however, I was mortified. The cabin mourned on my behalf, clucking in sympathy. All except for one girl, Rebecca, a lanky flute player who awoke early every morning to take a curling iron to her bangs and give them that perfectly-rounded, early 90's finish.

"Did you say yes?" she asked.

"Yes!" I howled. "I can't say no! How could I?"

"Well, then..." she looked back in the mirror, primping her bangs. She hadn't finished her thought aloud but the second, implicit half of her sentence — then what do you expect? — hung in the air.

In that moment I hated Rebecca. How dare she not be on my side? Didn't she understand that I was a victim? I hated her because she was right: my problem had an obvious solution and if I wasn't going to take it, I had only myself to blame.I didn't have the spine to take her advice. I stuck with my resentful yes and spent the dance sullenly by his side.

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Thirteen years have passed. And guess what? I'm still spineless. Hence, the premise of my recent resolution: learn to wield the power of no and stop being a "Yes Girl."

When I was studying language education, I was intrigued to learn that children usually learn to say "no" before they learn to say "yes." While parents dread the onset of the terrible twos and the reign of NO!, most child psychologists regard this phase as a healthy and necessary part of a child's development. To say "no" means that a child is gaining a sense of autonomy, drawing a boundary between their desires and those of everyone else.

Evidently, I am less independent than a two-year-old.

I didn't realize how little headway I'd made on this basic life skill until my roommates watched me hemming and hawing over rejecting a terrible tutoring gig. For them, it was a no-brainer. They knew the worth of their time and energy. I realized how much I wanted that kind of power and the courage to ask for what I want, and leave the rest behind. If you're one of these women, congratulations (for real)! You have a mastered an empowering skill society at large has discouraged women from learning. Sadly, too many women I know struggle like I do. 

For me, making this transition won't be easy. The cultural narrative favors the Yes Girl. She's laid-back, someone you can take anywhere, someone who is spontaneous and willing to take risks. A Yes Girl is generous and gives more of herself – all of herself – to everyone. A Yes Girl makes people happy.

The ugly truth about being a Yes Girl is that you have no boundaries between yourself and the rest of the world. You always put the needs of others before your own, paying homage to the Victorian notion that a "true" woman is holier than her counterparts and, thus, selfless. As a Yes Girl, you are so worried about letting someone else down or hurting their feelings that you agree to take part in things you know you want no part of. 

While it's compassionate to share your company with others, it's just not possible to do it all the time, and it's unfair when it's expected of you. Worse: it's dangerous. How many women do you know who handed out their phone number or allowed someone into their personal space, simply because they were afraid to offend, to inconvenience?  You do not need permission to say no or leave a situation that makes you uncomfortable. 

Women everywhere are raised to be obsequious, and we are sometimes guilty as being the guards of our own confinement. This guardianship of traditional femininity is one of the reasons women with sensibilities like mine often perceive other women (or even entire cultures) as being "bitchy." I catch myself looking at women refuse to make everyone happy with resentment, with envy, and think, how come you get to say no? How come you get to take what you want and not give a damn about what everyone thinks? There are women who know it is not their duty to please everybody, and then there's me and women who can't bring themselves to say no, like me. 

No one is going to free us from that burden but ourselves. If you're ready to start just saying no with me, here are a few perfect opportunities:

  • Say no to your boss: no, I will not go into work on Sunday because of a client who planned their deadlines poorly.
  • Say no to your friends: no, I am not going to stand in line for a half hour to go out to a club to pay a 10 dollar cover to buy an 8 dollar beer to gyrate with creepers on a sweaty dance floor listening to music I hate.
  • Say no to your significant other: no, I will not pretend to be interested in professional sports on your behalf.
  • Say no to your parents: no, I will not call up that guy you want me to date.
  • Say no this very article: This is your life – you do you, my friend. 

I’m trying this new skill out in small doses. Following my roommates’ lead, I said no to some of those low-paying tutoring gigs. Not only did no one die, but several of those people (if not all) actually offered to pay me more. Could it really be that easy? Is this how the rest of my life could work, if I maintained and enforced a standard of my worth?

"No" is confident and honest; it is sexy and powerful. It is a basic human right, the necessary counterpart to yes and key to a productive and happy existence. Plenty of people have said no to me and, though I was disappointed or even heartbroken, I survived. Why, thirteen years ago, was I so condescending to think that awkward boy (who is now on the cusp of overtaking Elon Musk, I imagine) couldn't survive "no" just the same?

Your time your money, your energy – your very life – is finite. Save your yes for what really counts and you'll be sparing your precious resources as well as everyone else's.