JUST SAY F*CK NO!
Why is it so fucking hard to say no?
How did the act of uttering one little word become more difficult than all the stuff we wind up doing because we couldn’t, wouldn’t, or felt we shouldn’t . . . just politely decline?
What makes us pack our calendars full and drain our bank accounts empty instead of expressing a simple “Can’t make it” or “Not today” or “I’m sorry, young lady, but I don’t like Girl Scout cookies. They taste like unhappy sand.”
I’ve thought a lot about these questions since I wrote my first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck. For years, I’ve shouted my core belief all over bookstores and on podcasts and TV and radio interviews throughout the world — namely, that it’s your right to live on your own terms; you can shed events, tasks, expenditures, obligations, or even relationships that don’t make you happy; and you needn’t feel guilty for doing so.
In other words, it’s okay to say no whenever you goddamn please, to whomever you goddamn must, and you don’t have to be so goddamn sorry about it.
By far the most common question I get from readers, listeners, and strangers in my Instagram DMs is this:
I understand you’re telling me it’s okay to say no — but how do I do it?
Like, literally, HOW???
You might be wondering the same thing, looking for ways to bridge that powerful divide between the pull of wanting to say no and the pressure of feeling like you have to say yes.
Maybe you’re feeling the burn of taking on too many assignments at work or too many projects for school or too much emotional labor at home. Maybe, like my friend Lauren, you’ve racked up hundreds of dollars in overseas roaming fees because you can’t say no to the Democratic National Committee when they robocall you repeatedly during your vacation.
Maybe you even tried saying no once or twice and it didn’t go very well. There were dirty looks or guilt trips or tears, so in the end you caved, resigning yourself to a life of yes because it’s “easier” in the moment.
Oh, honey. No.
But listen, I get it. And I acknowledge that The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck was primarily focused on getting to no in your own mind. Lucky for you, my newest book — Fuck No! — takes it all one giant leap further, into real, live, practical application. That is: saying no to other people’s faces (and voicemail and inboxes and pre-printed RSVP cards, and more).
Mark my naughty words, Fuck No! is a veritable encyclopedia of examples containing a cornucopia of comebacks and a plethora of polite replies. It has charts! And graphics! And a fill-in-the-blanks exercise akin to Mad Libs™ which is not called Mad Libs™ because that name/concept are already taken.
I call them FuckNotes.
This book represents the full length and breadth of my No files — one of which is bound to apply to that bar mitzvah you’ve been hoping to avoid for the last twelve years.
From the daily concerns of adding events to your calendar and to-dos to your list; to the infrequent but no less burdensome prospects of being expected to plan your 25th high school reunion just because you were the class president <checks calendar> twenty-five years ago, or executing a too-big project on a too-short deadline; to the rare request to be your BFF’s sperm donor …
… if you WANT to say no but can’t find the words to actually, literally, definitively SAY SO: it will be my pleasure to put them in your mouth.
- Have you been invited to a dog’s birthday party, perchance?
- Or been asked to take on additional work for no additional pay?
- Does your landlord want to raise your rent without fixing the water heater?
- Are you feeling pressured by an overzealous stylist into changing your lewk?
Never fear, in Fuck No! I show you how to say a firm-yet-pleasant no to all of these enervating entreaties, and more.
I say no all the time — to my friends and family, to prospective clients, and to producers who want me to get up before my customary 10:30 a.m. to appear on their morning radio shows three time zones back. Sometimes I take a hard pass; sometimes I propose an alternative. In any case, practice makes perfect, and this book represents the full length and breadth of my No files — one of which is bound to apply to that bar mitzvah you’ve been hoping to avoid for the last twelve years.
Yes, these days saying no is kinda my specialty. But my life wasn’t always No thanks! and Fuck that!
No, no it wasn’t.
I no whereof I speak
Before I became an internationally renowned setter-of-boundaries, I was the poster child for saying yes when I really wanted to say no — only to be left wondering why in god’s name I’d thought saying “Sure, I can host your baby shower!” would be less trouble than finding a nice way to decline.
Well into my thirties, I was a next-level people-pleaser. Day in and day out, you’d hear me say “Yep, no problem” and “Okay, I can do that!”
Even when it was a problem and I couldn’t do it.
Or shouldn’t do it.
Or just didn’t want to do it.
Sometimes I felt powerless in the face of peer pressure. Sometimes I put too much pressure on myself. And all too often I didn’t listen to the little voice in my head warning me that saying yes was a bad idea; I said it anyway and hoped it wouldn’t be that bad.
Reader, it was almost always that bad.
A brief list of things I regret having agreed to during those first three-plus misspent decades includes but is not limited to:
- Doing other people’s homework
- Lying to cover for a friend
- Having sex with an awful person
- Eating escargot
- Letting someone else book plane tickets on my behalf that resulted in me traveling from Montana to New York via SEATTLE. (Truly, you haven’t lived until you’ve spent two hours flying west wedged next to a panicking lady of indeterminate illness who forgot to pack her medication, only to land at Sea-Tac for a five-hour layover before backtracking across the country on a redeye to Newark.)
Eventually, all those regrettable yesses — and thousands more — accumulated and induced my own personal breaking point.
I wouldn’t say I snapped, exactly, but I did quit my fifteen-year career as a book editor in New York City to go freelance and move to a minuscule Caribbean town where there are approximately 8.6 million fewer people who could possibly ask me to do shit with or for them in any given day.
In the process of making those major life changes, I found myself saying some Big, Existential No’s: to long-held expectations for my career and future; to the pace and pressure of the city, but also to the comfort and convenience of the first world; to being cold; and to ever again donning Spanx for any reason.
Ironically, it was only after I’d done all that heavy lifting that I realized how many (hint: MANY) smaller but no less significant no’s were on the table:
- Add an unnecessary item to my to-do list? No.
- Pencil an unwanted event into my calendar? No thank you.
- Spend an ungodly amount of money to do something unenjoyable? Fuck no!
To be fair, maybe once you’ve bailed on a job, a home, and a country all within six months you get a little trigger happy, but I have to say this approach has been working out well for me. Not only is my life now largely free of shit I can’t or shouldn’t or don’t want to do — I’ve had more opportunities to say a sincere, enthusiastic Yes! to things that I find interesting, engaging, and important — and to do them happily and well.
Most significantly, since the Great Personal and Professional Meltdown of 2015 I’ve published five No Fucks Given Guides, two journals, and a page-a-day calendar full of profanity-laden advice pertaining to mental health and happiness. (The Observer dubbed me “the anti-guru,” a moniker I find both fitting and delightful.)
This new career has been both a dream come true AND a test of my ability to say no when I need to. Because as it turns out, all of this publisher-sanctioned tomfoolery happens on a fairly punishing timeline — which means I’m not much less busy with hardcore responsibilities than when I was people-pleasing my way up the corporate ladder in New York.
Aha! you might be thinking. You said no and wound up right back where you started. There’s no hope for the rest of us!
Not so fast there, Carl Lewis.
Yes, I’m still busy with stuff I both want and need to do. The difference is that now I’m comfortable saying no to all the other stuff that would make my life even busier or otherwise less enjoyable.
I say no to invites and activities and vacations and objectively lovely and enticing offers not because I have something better or more important to do, but simply because I. DO. NOT. WANT. TO. DO. THAT. THING.
I mean, I could continue to let feelings of guilt and obligation push me into saying yes to every invitation I receive or favor that’s asked of me when I’m on deadline — and I might still get my books turned in on schedule because I’m a Type A perfectionist who is constitutionally incapable of not doing so — but I’d also be making myself miserable in the meantime.
But saying no isn’t only about making time for yourself to be responsibly productive — i.e., sacrificing fun stuff or blowing off other people’s needs because you can’t say yes to it/them without royally fucking up your own life.
That’s just the beginning.
Saying no is about setting and protecting all kinds of boundaries — even when you technically can say yes, but you shouldn’t, or frankly, you could, but you just don’t want to.
That’s right frogs and toads: I say no to invites and activities and vacations and objectively lovely and enticing offers not because I have something better or more important to do, but simply because I. DO. NOT. WANT. TO. DO. THAT. THING.
Do I still feel a twinge of guilt when friends invite me out to dinner and instead of saying yes because it’s a nice of them to ask and it’ll probably be fun and I don’t really have anything else to do, I say no because to be honest I’d rather eat an entire container of hummus and go to bed at 9:00 p.m. accompanied by half an Ambien and a thick layer of under-eye moisturizer?
Sure I do. Anti-gurus are only human.
But as with any exercise that requires willpower — like sticking to a diet or fitness regimen, quitting smoking, or refraining from reaching across the table to murder a loud chewer — I try to focus on the long-term benefits even when it feels difficult, wrong, or unnatural in the short term. And through trial and error, I’ve trained myself to get past the initial discomfort and say no whenever I need to for my own well-being — whether it’s because I CAN’T do something, or I SHOULDN’T, or I JUST DON’T WANT TO.
Otherwise it’s my own fault that I’m munching on an Outback Steakhouse Bloomin’ Onion for the third time in a week just because my coworkers asked me to join them for Happy Hour and I couldn’t figure out how to say “Not tonight, thanks!”
(That was a hypothetical example, as I currently live in a tiny fishing village in the Dominican Republic where there are no chain restaurants and I have no coworkers. But you get my drift.)
Anyway, all of this is to say that Shonda Rhimes can have her Year of Yes. I’m super happy with my life of no.
And you could be too.
The joy of no
When you learn how to say no and stick to it, it’s a positive development for EVERYONE INVOLVED.
Yes, you’ll be happier when you’re getting more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff out of life — where good stuff equals freedom, an afternoon to yourself, and a balance in your bank account instead of on your credit card, and bad stuff equals untenable deadlines, unwanted advances, and those freaky little anchovy filets they insist on depositing atop an otherwise yummy Caesar salad.
And you being happier is my number one priority here. But if you play your cards right, I’m telling you that other people will be happier too.
- Your friends? Instead of hemming, hawing, and leaving them hanging, you’ll be letting them down quickly and gently. They’ll appreciate it! I mean, wouldn’t you?
- Your family? Instead of doing things with and for them under duress, stoking the fires of resentment and creating the wrong kind of memories, you’ll be preserving the quality of the time you do spend together.
- Your bosses, clients, and colleagues? Instead of over-committing and potentially under-delivering, you’ll be setting manageable expectations that prevent them from getting burned when your circuits overload.
By god, I love the people I can depend on to respond swiftly to invitations, especially if it’s a no. Helping me plan ahead shows me that you care — much more so than showing up out of guilt or a sense of obligation and not enjoying yourself because you never wanted to be there in the first place.
Honestly expressing that you can’t do me a favor is a favor in and of itself. Now I have time to ask someone else. Or not, if you saying no has made me realize I shouldn’t have bothered you or anyone with it in the first place. Way to pay it forward, pal!
And being clear and uncompromising about your ability or desire to meet a deadline or accomplish a task makes me positively giddy inside. YOU ARE EXACTLY THE KIND OF PERSON I WANT ON MY TEAM.
Yup. Learning to say no in the right way, at the right time, with the right words (and attitude and facial expressions and select hand gestures) can improve your relationships and make all of your interactions more fun and fruitful.
That’s the joy of no. And as with cooking and sex, there are just as many recipes and positions to get you there.
Thanks for reading this excerpt of Fuck No!: How To Stop Saying Yes When You Can’t, You Shouldn’t, or You Just Don’t Want To.
- If you’re excited about discovering the joy of no for yourself, you can buy the book HERE.
Thanks again for reading, and Happy No Year to you!