• Akhila Balasubramaniam

The power of "No"

Updated: Jul 31

You are in a rush to go somewhere and walk past a group of tourists. A person from the group requests you to click a picture of them. What do you do? Refuse and get on with your work, or volunteer to take the picture?


Though it changes based on the context, you can observe a pattern. This instance is probably a gesture of politeness, but is it always?


What is the problem?


It could be childhood trauma, the upbringing or any other life experience that makes "saying no" a difficult task for some.


Irrespective of the cause, this can become a habit and bleed into other parts of your life, even if you have more autonomy there. Like any other habit, the lazy way out is to stick with what you usually do, just say yes.


It becomes increasingly difficult to refuse a friend or a family member. Now, there are expectations, obligations, social and moral responsibility.


Without getting into the morality debate, let’s just focus on simple things one can request of you. It could be a friend inviting you to hang out in a place you don't feel comfortable, peers urging you to drink or smoke, a stranger insisting that you swap seats in a bus, a manager directing you to do some work which you don't think is your responsibility, a friend asking to borrow some money, a girl or a guy asking you out on a date.


All of these could have a certain level of expectation, even authority in some cases, but you have the agency to refuse.


The intensity of these requests varies from person to person. People can be persuasive because they care about what they want. And you should care about what you want. Not everyone can sense if they are making the other person uncomfortable. Sometimes, the uncomfortable person does a fantastic job of pretending to be okay, making it impossible to see through the facade.


Where to start?

Expectations are conditioned by society and our upbringing. We might not even question some of the requests (demands) made of us. Nevertheless, we ought to get in touch with the voice within our head to see if we are willing to do it.


Tone-deaf to the voice inside? Our body offers all the wisdom we need, to make decisions. When confronted with a choice to do something, observe how your body reacts to the idea. Do you feel relaxed and expansive at the thought of doing it? Does the thought of helping out the other person, puts your body at ease, or does it get rigid, making you clench parts of your body?


The tricky part is when "saying yes" is entrenched in your system, the thought of refusing can give you the jitters. Your body can misguide you because it might seem more exhausting to explain why you do not want to do that. The key is to envision how you'd feel to do or not do that, and not how you'd feel about that person's reaction.


Moreover, you don’t owe an explanation to everyone. Sometimes you are going to disappoint people. It is impossible to please everyone while keeping your sanity. Others will survive, you are not responsible for their disappointment or heartbreak.


"Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They're compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment." Brene Brown

Boundaries are healthy, and in time you will realise that it improves your relationship with your friends and family. It enables you to be around people without guilt or tension.


The ability to be assertive and say no, in many cases, is cultivated at a young age. Obedience is highly valued in many cultures. This has to be developed with caution because it can cripple the child's ability to speak up when they feel uncomfortable. It can put them in severely distressing situations, later in their life. My heart goes out to everyone who struggles with this. While being kind and helpful, do not fail to prioritise your feelings. Be brave, be bold to refuse any request that makes you feel uncomfortable. After all, if we do not stand up for ourselves, who will?




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