A few months back, I finally saw the Bollywood film, Pink. This film, which is a Hindi language legal thriller about three women who are sexually assaulted and who are then portrayed to be culprits and women of loose character because they live alone, away from their families, dress in not conservative clothes, drink and date. One sentence from the film, uttered by the lawyer Deepak Sehgal, played by Amitabh Bachchan stood out in my mind and the sentence is the title of my post; “No is a complete sentence”
If you think about it, No is indeed a complete sentence. It’s okay to say it whenever we need to, without fear or guilt. Yet many of us find it hard to say no because our boundaries have become so eroded that we scarcely know where we stop and other people begin. We don’t need to justify our actions when we refuse someone’s request. At work, at home and in any situation, when people ask us for help, we usually find it very hard to refuse the request or command. Hence, reluctantly even, we agree to help because we feel guilty in refusing. If we don’t know how to say no to things, then saying yes loses meaning. By saying yes to everything that is asked of us, we are setting ourselves up for failure at some point or the other.
Our need for connection is what instils fear of saying no, because we believe that it will make the people on the other end upset, creating a barrier in our relationship with them. Saying no can also cause cognitive dissonance in us — that uncomfortable feeling in our solar plexus and mind when our actions don’t match up with our words, values, and morals. When we believe ourselves to be a helpful, kind person above all else, and then choose to say no to something helpful and kind, it causes this feeling.
As if this was not enough, our culture places an unrealistic value on the pursuit of busyness. Society tells us that if we aren’t working on something, anything, we are just wasting time. Thus, if the reason we are saying no is so that we can find time to do something for ourselves or, perhaps, even manage to do nothing at all, we feel unworthy. And even when we finally muster up the courage to say no or I can’t, we then feel obligated to offer up an explanation to justify this unfavourable response. And this is why No is a complete sentence.
Saying the word no when someone asks you to do something, and then not following it up with the why may feel odd and even rude. The charged space that word leaves behind is palpable. But learning to say no and letting it hang out there all alone in its glory is a small kind of superpower. Of course, the person getting the no from you will fire back a why when you decline to do what they are asking you to do. If this happens and you feel that stating no is a complete sentence is a bit harsh, try bundling up your courage with a little vulnerability. When pushed for a reason, you could say something on the lines that you are tired or you have other commitments, but more often than not, just saying no will be very liberating. Of course, you may have to give some explanation if it’s at work and your manager pushes you, but keep it as simple as possible so you don’t get into any complicated explanations.
It’s pretty natural that after years of societal and generational impact, no has a distinctively negative connotation and denotation. The No has to be reframed as not being a negative term and we have to begin to think of no not as a solitary decision but in the context of the positive impact saying no has.
Here is what you need to do when you don’t want to do something: say No. That’s no, period, end of the story. If you want to say, No, thank you, that is acceptable, but don’t add anything else to the sentence. However, if you feel it is rude or abrupt by simply stating no, there are many alternative ways to say no without ever uttering the word. One degree of departure from the word No would be saying I can’t. Two degrees of departure would be saying, I’ll get back to you and buying yourself enough time to give yourself a pep talk so that you can politely decline. Three degrees of departure would be saying yes to something else by creating alternatives, kind of like a reverse mind trick. By doing this, you shift the response from a negative one of something you can’t or won’t do to something positive and something you can or are willing to do.
Learning to say no is sort of like learning how to meditate; it’s a habit that you have to cultivate. The more you say it, the easier it gets. The easier it gets, the less guilty you feel. We need to set up personal boundaries around what we are and aren’t willing to accept for our mental stability. And saying no doesn’t just mean declining invitations or saying no to extra work.
Learning to say no isn’t something you only need to do with other people, it’s something you need to learn to say to yourself. Saying no to yourself means creating personal boundaries that will ultimately contribute to your well-being in the long term. Setting up boundaries means recognizing that other people have boundaries, too. It means asking for consent. No is the magic word to getting your life back. Just remember that it is a complete sentence, and act accordingly. Because if you can’t say no, your Yes doesn’t mean anything.