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The Secret To Saying "No" (With Zero Guilt!)

What a fabulous skill!

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the word no in big white bold font on light blue background
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“That’s not going to work for me.”

The statement was the “and then she said” mic-drop part of a story about an editor I’d worked with; during a job interview, she was invited to a final meeting with the big kahuna. The meeting would conflict with an important event she’d set up months before. I expected to hear that she’d canceled the trip in the spirit of career martyrdom we’re all expected to embrace, but the plot twist was better: She said no. Without even apologizing! The kicker? She got the job. The big kahuna liked her moxie.

This ability to say no and be unapologetic, free from guilt, and even happy about it was something I’d only ever seen in women of a certain age. Younger women, up to about their late 30s, had a tendency to go a little too far overboard, sounding either overly apologetic or defensive. What had me awestruck was when women could say no to something without harming the person being turned down or themselves. Just a simple “no.”

It’s not that I hadn’t experienced the joy of the guilt-free “no” myself — just not since I spit peas out at my mother from my high chair. Between that time and now, a span of a whole lot of decades, I said no inside, but what came out was “yes.” “Yes, of course.” “Um, sure.” “Oh, definitely!” “You got it.” If it absolutely had to be no, it was “Oh, I’m so sorry, I can’t,” followed by overexplaining and doing twice what was asked of me, as if in penance for some crime.

“'No' is a complete sentence,” my emotionally balanced husband would tell me, but he’s a man; they speak in a different dialect, and the kind of bluntness men use felt clunky when I tried it. What I wanted was what I’d seen that editor, and other mature women, do with natural, comfortable ease: to say no without it being some motivational speaker-driven bold statement, a big feminist deal, a cultural moment, or a special display of self-esteem that would cause a therapist to say “Good job!” When these women said no, it was just a statement of fact. I didn’t know what would get me there, so I waited.

And that’s what got me there. If you’re not born in such possession of yourself that you spit peas out at any age (hopefully not at people), or you’re not born French, the catalyst for the “no” that’s not only guilt-free but happy comes with age. When the amount of my birthday candles became a fire hazard, I had lots of life experience to look back on. Subtitle: I realized how much time I’d wasted. So much life lost to acquiescence, not understanding that I could say no. No without being overly angry, no without apologizing, no without it feeling like it was a really big deal. And not just saying no, but feeling good about it.

I was recently at a job interview where everything was going well. I knew I could do the job, but I also had a new book to promote. If I accepted this full-time offer, I’d be abandoning my book to oblivion after years of hard work. At the same time, while listening to the executive describe the project, I heard the self-employed writers’ mantra in my head: Never turn down paying work.

Eventually, the woman who’d called the meeting cut to the chase. “So, is this something you want to do?”

I decided that a good compromise was to buy time and say I’d think about it and get back to her. But what I said was “No, it’s not going to work for me.”

No fanfare, no music swelling, no sudden hush in the restaurant — after all, part of the sweetness of the happy “no” is the natural ease of it. I didn’t say it for the sake of saying it, or because I secretly wanted the job and thought she’d admire my moxie. I said it because it was honest, in that rare way that certitude and comfort become one.

“No” doesn’t always have to be a complete sentence. If possible, I like to help the person I’m turning down find a solution, like when I recommended a talented friend for this job. The big kahuna was grateful for my suggestion, as well as for not wasting her time.

Many things have come with age — arthritis in my knee, a hormonal roller coaster, a sense of more time behind me than in front of me. Along with those has come the ability to say no without apology, guilt or hesitation, and with a sense of freedom and happiness. That more than makes up for everything else.