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Saying Yes to Saying No

By Kaye Olsson

When I was growing up there were many social expectations for women; I was told to be a “nice girl” and behave in a “ladylike” manner. This meant always being polite and considering the feelings of others—often to the detriment of my own. Being young and insecure was hard. I constantly second-guessed myself and often accepted situations that I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with. People around me told me who I should be, and I believed them.

As I have grown older and accumulated many years of life experiences, I’ve gradually developed self-confidence and have become less patient with circumstances I would have simply accepted in the past. Now I find myself saying things like “I’m too old to put up with this” or “Life is too short.” And honestly, I’m feeling happier because of it. My theory is that part of becoming older and wiser is learning where our boundaries are and giving ourselves permission to sometimes just say no.

One of my favorite quotes is from the late Steve Jobs. He once said: "Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others ’’opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."


His wise words really resonated with me and caused me to reflect on the things I am no longer willing to accept—things I’ve given myself permission to say “no” to. Here are a few examples:

Wearing uncomfortable shoes.

For most of my adult life, I allowed others to set expectations about my appearance, which often included footwear that was “cute” or fashionable—but extremely uncomfortable. All those years spent tripping around in high heels have resulted in bunions, plantar fasciitis, and other discomforts for my feet. So now my priority is shoes (and clothes, in general) that actually feel good.

Ignoring my body’s needs.

As a younger woman, much of my attention was devoted to restrictive diets and grueling exercise routines in an effort to build an attractive physique. Sure, I looked good but was always tired and hungry. In this stage of life my focus has now shifted to a more compassionate approach to self-care that includes sleep, nourishment, and play. I’ve realized that listening to my body, and gracefully embracing changes as it evolves, is simply part of accepting who I am.

Tolerating people with negative energy.

You know the ones—the Debbie Downers, the gossipy neighbor, the drama queen who demands constant attention, or Uncle Bob who wants to argue about his political views and the latest conspiracy theory he’s read on the internet. I get it, we are all entitled to our own opinions and belief systems. But interacting with people who are energy thieves can be exhausting. So I’ve learned to quietly remove myself from these situations without engaging because it’s simply not worth it.

Subjecting myself to emotional triggers.

We are constantly bombarded with noise from sensationalized newscasts, intrusive advertisers, talk radio shows, social media influencers, etc. who are all demanding our attention. They are looking to trigger an emotional response from us in order to achieve their goals. But the truth is, we don’t have to allow them into our heads. I’ve recognized the impact these messages have on me so I’ve started guarding my attention and limiting my exposure. Unplugging from the nonsense and ignoring the chatter has done wonders for my mental health.

Trying to please everyone.

In the past, I felt obligated to accept every request in order to be polite or to win the approval of others. This often led to feeling overextended and resentful, especially when I had agreed to perform a task I wasn’t particularly interested in. Now I am much more selective with my time and have stopped pretending to be someone else just to fit in. I’ve learned that it’s okay to decline offers, and I don’t even feel compelled to provide an excuse. And the list goes on.

Sure, I’m still open to positive opportunities and am constantly saying “yes” when they arise. But I also value my limited time and don’t wish to squander it. By giving myself permission to say no to certain types of people or situations, I’ve been able to free up valuable emotional real estate and focus on things that truly matter: the relationships and experiences that are meaningful to me. Instead of being cluttered with unwanted distractions, my brain can now engage with more important aspects of life such as pursuing future dreams, hopes, and desires.

Learning to say no can be incredibly valuable and empowering. I’m sure you have your own examples of things you have stopped tolerating—the time-eaters, the personal stressors, and the things that steal your joy. If not, I encourage you to start thinking about it and making a list now.

Life is short so let’s think about how we are choosing to spend the brief time we are given.

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1 Comment

Dorian Martin
Dorian Martin
Oct 22, 2023

Thank you, Kaye, for this column. This topic is so timely for many women, myself included. It can be uncomfortable initially to say no--and sometimes saying no can cause a backlash from the other party who is so used to us saying yes. Yet, standing in our truth and lovingly being firm in our boundaries can improve both our lives and relationships.

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