How I Finally Learned How to Say ‘No’ (and How You Can, Too)

Nine phrases to try for yourself

Photo: Carol Yepes/Getty Images

I have finally learned how to say “no.” I am 43. It’s taken 25 years of my adult life to get comfortable with these two tiny letters. Why? Three reasons, the combination of which is the perfect storm for someone like me: 1) I am a people pleaser; 2) it’s human nature to be really needy and demanding, even more so now that we’re trapped at home; and 3) We live in a “say yes to life” culture. But, of all the things that the pandemic has taught me, this is probably the most powerful one: “No” is the new “yes.” Let’s break it down:

I am a people pleaser. Maybe you are, too. For many years of my life, if you said the sky was green, I would say, “You know, it does look a little green today.” I would find some speck or ray or shadow of the clearly blue sky to make it true. Hunter. Lime. Olive. Fern. Pick a shade. There must be some green in there. I made it my mission—in a nanosecond—to find the green.

Why? Because I wanted so badly to connect with people. I wanted to belong. I wanted to be part of the group. I wanted to find common ground with you enough that I would blatantly ignore my own eyes in order to agree. Plainly put, it was just easier. I saw zero value in disagreeing. Disagreements lead to conflict. Conflict means arguing. Arguing leads to fighting. I grew up in a house full of fighting, void of boundaries. I just couldn’t do it. I could never muster “no.” “Yes” avoids the ugliness of its opposite.

I was also a gay kid. No need to lay it on thick. I pay my therapist to discuss the trauma of it all; you don’t need to be subjected to it. But, suffice it to say, those of us who grew up lying to ourselves for 20 years are very used to having to pretend to be something—anything—we are not. Net-net, the people-pleasing came naturally to me. Saying “no” meant I would have to stand by an alternative view of the world—or alternative view of the sky—and that was just too much for me to handle. (Note: I want to thank the writer Anne C. Frazier for her work on people-pleasing. It has been truly helpful.)

People are really needy and demanding. Everyone is out to get validation, happiness, love, and acceptance. We’re hard-wired for it. It’s even in our founding Declaration as a nation. We’re 328 million people constantly pursuing happiness.

Perhaps the beautiful and ugly truth that we discovered over the past year is that we need each other, deeply. We need to connect one-on-one, in groups, and with the larger whole. We surround ourselves with these concentric circles: family, friends, community, Facebook. It’s how we function as social creatures. Saying “yes” often brings us that validation, love, and acceptance from each of those concentric circles. Together, this makes us feel connected, loved, seen, and valued.

That said, if someone doesn’t get that validation, love, and acceptance from you, they will surely get it somewhere else. If you can’t satiate the need right now, someone else can. So “no” really means, “I can’t give you that today. Try elsewhere this time.” Harsh, I know. But if you are a constant source of validation, love, and acceptance for everyone else, chances are that you have no time or energy to give those very same things to yourself.

We live in a “say yes to life” culture. America is the land of “yes.” Yes means opportunity. Yes means access. Yes means we are expanding—as a person, as a brand, as a force in the world. Why would you say “no” and cut off a possible path to all the things that you want: love, money, success, connections, new experiences?

This path, though, is the problem. And that’s what I have discovered being trapped at home (solo) for the last year: I can no longer subscribe to the notion that “yes” is the path to all I have ever wanted. In fact, I have found that “no” is the road back to me.

“No” lets me have more time in my day. “No” cuts down on the pinging and the ringing. “No” lets my evenings unfold as they will. “No” lets me nurture my new relationship. “No” creates the space for me to discover, create, reflect, and grow—or just sit at home and do absolutely nothing.* When the pandemic started, we all said “yes” to every Zoom invite, every virtual party, every trivia night. Because our regular sources of validation, love, and acceptance were cut off quickly, in a matter of days, we had to find new ways to access those sources. Zoom and Teams and Verizon and Spectrum were more than happy to help.

But as the year slogged on, I found that I was clogging my schedule just as I had before. Many of us were. Every evening had to be full. Every weekend had to be planned. Every minute had to be accounted for. If I wasn’t scheduling my life to the max, others were doing it for me. And I was saying “yes.” It was a natural and very understandable response to the major world shift we were collectively experiencing. Suddenly, I was reaching my emotional saturation point without even leaving the house. Virtual life was just as busy as physical life. Something had to give.

And that’s when I just started saying “no.” Plain and simple. Sorry, can’t do it anymore. All bets are off. The answer is no. Done. Thanks. And, wow, it has changed me. And now I love it. I can’t get enough of it. Because “no” opens up a whole new world of “yes” — “yes” to all the things that I just haven’t had the time or energy for in the last five-to-ten-to-twenty years of my life: doing the New York Times Spelling Bee daily, practicing my calligraphy, writing, reading again (actual paper books!), and spending time with masked friends and family without running off to 19 other commitments. For those of you who know and love the 80/20 rule, “no” has helped me 80/20 my entire life. (So has Sarah Knight. I am now a loyal disciple of “not giving a fuck.”)

So, to be helpful, my friends, here are nine ways that I now say “no.” I often find when I want to change a behavior, I need new language. We are what we speak. Toward that end, I offer you these new phrases to help you discover “no.” Try them out. Let me know how they work. Beginners, try the phrase. Feel free to substitute the details as you wish. For those of you who are advanced, add “No” before the phrase. (Personally, I stay away from “I can’t.” It’s a lie. You can, but you just don’t want to. Be honest. Lying makes you an asshole. I also stay away from “I am so busy!” or “Things have been nuts here!” Lies. Lies. Lies.) Give it a shot. I hope “no” opens up a whole new world of “yes.” And that it is the road back to you.

Image courtesy of the author

*Sitting at home and doing absolutely nothing is the blessing and the curse of the pandemic. But it is, foremost, a nightmare for those of us who are Type A. I am learning to embrace the nightmare. Hmmm, maybe it is, in fact, a dream.

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Julio Vincent Gambuto is a writer/director, based in New York City. He wrote that Medium essay about the pandemic that went around the world to 21M readers. Follow on Twitter for small thoughts, or here for Medium ones, or his website for large ones.

“Giulio” (It’s Italian.) Writer/Director. Weekly: where the personal, pandemic and the political meet | juliovincent.com • Tw:@juliovincent