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The Secret Value of Being a ‘No Person’

Born into a family of people-pleasers and perfectionists (LYSM, but it’s true!), I have a difficult time saying no. I cringe at the thought of confrontation. I’ll fixate on how to respond to a text from my best friend of 23 years so I don’t seem disagreeable. There’s a thing on Saturday and I really don’t want to attend, but sure, I’ll be there. My to-do list will be checked off even though I’m bleeding out of my eyes! (Hypothetical but…you get the idea.)

All it took was this one tiny thing, a pandemic, to learn that there’s actually significant value in being a no-person.

According to the archetypes, the yes-person is positive, agreeable and go-getting; the no-person is negative, disagreeable and not a team player. Yes-people take opportunities and run with them; no-people are difficult (and maybe even lazy). I don’t think anyone would’ve ever labeled me as a yes-person per se, but I’m very good at outwardly keeping my cool and handling responsibilities while internally panicking about, well, everything.

For me, a lover of order, a global health crisis made many yes/no decisions simple. Things were suddenly black and white: You’ll either go to the event and accidentally get someone you’ve never met very sick (and possibly kill them), or you’ll stay home and help keep everyone safe. Driven by my anxiety, I began by saying no to certain social obligations, like weddings and trips. Once my no muscle got a little more, well, toned, I suddenly felt a lot better about saying no in other situations. 

My original fear was that by disagreeing, I would be labeled as a salty curmudgeon. But in getting used to saying no, I also learned the difference between reflexively using it as an excuse and saying no in a thoughtful way, which can make all the difference. (Sometimes you do just have to suck it up and do something you don’t want to do.) 

And those archetypes really fail to show the nuance in saying yes or no. Being chronically agreeable might be an effective way to put on a positive attitude, but it’s also an effective way to dig yourself into a hole of burnout. Saying no can be scary, but it often means you’re being authentic to yourself and attentive to your own needs—something especially valuable in a time when hustle and productivity are valued above all else.

The more I’ve said no, the more confident I’ve become in resisting my people-pleasing tendencies. As it turns out, the results have never been devastating. The people who I’m close to respect my boundaries, and at the very least, no one has called me a curmudgeon (at least, to my face). In the grand scheme of things, I think it’s all about balance—knowing when to suck it up and say yes and knowing when I’m at my limit.

Two years in, and I actually feel good knowing I literally cannot do it all. Who can? If someone else realizes this about themself by my example, all the better. “Saying yes to saying no”: It sounds kind of like a cheesy slogan on a D.A.R.E. T-shirt, but I'll totally wear it.