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How to Stop Saying Yes When You Can't, You Shouldn't, or You Just Don't Want To
By Sarah Knight
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Are you burnt out from taking on more than you can handle or accepting less than you deserve? Tired of giving in instead of sticking up for yourself? Sick of saying yes all the time? You're gonna love F*CK NO!
No is an acceptable answer, and it's time to start using it. Whether you're a People-Pleaser, Overachiever, Pushover, or have serious FOMO, bestselling "anti-guru" Sarah Knight helps you say what you really mean without being really mean—or burning out for fear of missing out.
Life is so much better when you say no with confidence—and without guilt, fear, or regret. F*ck No! delivers practical strategies that give you the power to decline, and concrete examples that put the words right into your mouth. You'll discover:
- The joy of no
- No-Tips for all occasions
- How to set boundaries
- Fill-in-the-blank F*ckNotes
- The No-and-Switch, the Power No—and how to take no for an answer yourself
- And much more!
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What the world needs now is no, sweet 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: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have with People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do. For years, I’ve shouted my core belief all over bookstores and on podcasts and TV and radio interviews throughout the world: that it’s your right to live on your own terms. You can opt out of 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 inquiry 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.
In fact, I’m guessing you picked up Fuck No! because you’re 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 when it really mattered to you, and it didn’t go very well. There were dirty looks or guilt trips or tears, and so you caved, resigning yourself to a life of yes because it’s “easier” in the moment.
Oh, honey. No.
But listen, I get it. While I did write an entire book that the aptly named magazine Real Simple said “will lighten your spirit and clear your calendar, freeing up time and energy for yourself (and your Netflix account),” I acknowledge that The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck was primarily focused on getting to no in your own mind.
And since you need to be able to say no to yourself before you can say it to anyone else, Fuck No! will double down on some of these best practices. Among the newer, no-ier concepts, I’ll offer petite primers on fuck bucks and the budgeting thereof, mental decluttering, personal policies, and everyone’s favorite guilt-free pleasure: my NotSorry Method.
Then I’m going to take 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, you hold in your hands a veritable encyclopedia of examples containing a cornucopia of comebacks and a plethora of polite replies. There are at least four-hundred-and-fifteen distinct ways to say no, nein, and non merci.* It has charts! And graphics! And an exercise of fill in the blank words, which is akin to Mad Libs™ and which is not called Mad Libs™ because the name Mad Libs™ belongs to someone else.
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 twenty-fifth 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?
Do your parents wish you would at least consider having that tattoo removed before your sister’s wedding?
Never fear, I will 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 propose an alternative; sometimes I take a hard pass. 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 “Sure, I can host your baby shower!” was easier and better than simply having found a nice way to decline. (If you’re at all familiar with my work, this example in particular should be an indication that I was not operating in my current no-fucks-given state of mind.)
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
Taking jobs for less money than I was worth
Starting a doomed sci-fi imprint at the last publishing house I worked for
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 to induce 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.
For example, by opting out of the strict schedule of corporate life, I’ve been able to nurture new friendships in my new hometown over no-pressure lunches in the middle of my self-designed workday. By devoting less of my brain power to petty office grievances, I’ve been able to use more of it to learn Spanish. And by spending less money on the privilege of existing in New York City, I’ve been able to put more toward causes that I admire. All fab outcomes.
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 fitting and delightful.) This has been both a dream come true AND a test of my ability to say no when I need to; as it turns out, because all of my publisher-sanctioned tomfoolery happens on a fairly punishing timeline, I’m not much less busy 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 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 and/or less enjoyable.
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.
And saying no isn’t only about sacrificing fun 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 (see above: “I might still meet my deadline, but I’d also be making myself miserable in the meantime”) 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 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 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. Plus, I no longer view “no” as a negative (disappointing people, rejecting friends, missing out on fun); I see it as a positive (relaxing, having some alone time, getting sleep or getting work done, whatever it may be).
It’s a revelation, I tell you.
Through trial and error, and buoyed by the fruits of my early success, 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.
Turning the status quo into status: no
Together, we’re going to reframe the conversation, defang the word, and destigmatize the act of saying nyet.*
You’ll stop thinking about “no” as too hard, wicked rude, and just plain unacceptable, and start thinking about it as pretty easy, perfectly polite, and eminently justifiable, actually.
Like a bowl of carbs before a big night out, part I of this book lays a base—of theory, strategy, and technique for all of the hands-on work to come. It includes:
Why do I say yes all the goddamn time? (a quiz)
The Why Yes/When No Method
Different nopes for different folks
The Power No
Guilt: a few observations
Do I really have to? (a flowchart)
How to say what you really mean without being really mean
A practice round featuring neighbors, vendors, and people you never liked in high school and still don’t
The joy of no
And plenty of No-Tips for all occasions!
In part II, we’ll put all of the above to good use. Chapter by chapter, I’ll provide hundreds of concrete examples of things you might want or need to say no to, how to do it, and what you stand to gain.
HUNDREDS, I TELL YOU.
And Fuck No! isn’t just a compendium of sassy comebacks and salty f-bombs. (Though it is that too.) I want you to walk away from this book with a deeper appreciation for how much better your life can be when you say no with confidence—and without guilt, stigma, fear, and regret.
I want to transform the way we approach invitations—viewing them as welcoming offers, not intimidating obligations. I want us to feel good about doing favors when we can, and stop feeling bad about it when we can’t. I want to help you eliminate the things you shouldn’t be doing, so you can enjoy and succeed at those you should. I want families to listen to and communicate better with one another—especially the ones and others who just don’t want to show up every time, for every occasion.
Along the way, we’ll discuss:
No is an option. And it isn’t just for RSVP cards. It’s for colleagues who ask you to cover for them for the third time this week. It’s for second cousins seeking interest-free loans. It’s for bosses who want you to work too much and clients who want to pay too little. It’s for kids and dates and roommates and phone solicitors and third tequila shots.
No is a bargaining chip. Saying it can get you fewer commitments and less hassle—but it could also get you more, like a raise or a promotion. It all depends on how you wield it. I’ll give you lots of variations to bring to the table.
No is a tool for change. Consent is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and everyone can use an extra lesson in how to give, withhold, and identify it. I’ll address the importance of setting and enforcing boundaries (intimate and otherwise) and celebrate your right and privilege to do so.
Ultimately, I want to help you re-envision what it means to give no as your answer, and then go out there and do it so other people have to re-think what it means to take no for an answer.
We’re all in this together, folks. We need to get comfortable saying no for our own health and the health of our relationships with family, friends, lovers, bosses, colleagues, clients, landlords, roommates, students, teachers, teammates, coaches, and everyone else who needs to hear it.
No is an acceptable answer. It’s time to start using it.
IT’S A YES-OR-NO QUESTION:
Deciding which answer is best for you
To kick things off, we’ll look at all of the reasons people say yes when they want to say no—and more specifically, all of your reasons.
Are you a classic people-pleaser? Do you, to your detriment, worry more about others than about yourself? Are you afraid of missing out—on fun, or opportunities, or just “likes” on Instagram? Is it your intention to overachieve? Or at the end of the day, are you just a big fucking pushover? (Forgot to mention: if you thought you were going to get through this book without having to fess up to your hang-ups, then you don’t know me very well.)
Next, we’ll meet your nemeses, the Yes-Men, and I’ll show you four simple, reliable paths into the No Zone—plus some bonus techniques with which to enact expert-level naysaying. And because we all live in the real world with problems and challenges that must be confronted even when we don’t feel like it, I’ll also offer guidelines for figuring out when you really have to say yes.
Do you smell a flowchart? BECAUSE I SURE DO.
We’ll get all up in your boundaries; we’ll talk about guilt; we’ll talk about shifting your mind-set; and I’ll lay down a strategy borne from my earlier studies in Not Giving a Fuck that also serves as the gold standard for How to Say No. Then I’ll show you how you can massage it to suit your unique circumstances, because silver and bronze standards never hurt anybody.
After that, a practice round to get your juices no’ing, and I’ll close out part I by giving you a glimpse at the greater good—the ways in which you saying no can improve lives other than your own. (Feel free to pretend that’s all you’re reading it for. I won’t tell.)
Meanwhile, time to open your mind and sharpen your tongue. From this page forward, yes is on no-tice.
No your enemy
When you say yes all the time, you get overwhelmed, overbooked, overdrawn, and burnt-the-fuck-out. But you know that already, or you wouldn’t be here. So instead of focusing on the effect, let’s investigate the cause.
What motivates you to take the circuitous path to Burnout Town instead of hopping the express train to No-ville?
Perhaps you identify as a people-pleaser, which is not in itself a terrible quality. Aren’t you reliable, helpful, and my, such a team player! But if you spend your days doing shit only because you feel like you “should,” or wanting people to like you even if it kills you, well, maybe it is a little bit terrible.
Just calling ’em like I see ’em.
But I’ve been there, and in the spirit of airing out our hang-ups, I’ll tell you I’ve had a hard time saying no for other reasons too. For example, I’m competitive; I don’t like to admit defeat and sometimes saying no can feel like a loss. Also, I’ve been known to equate being busy with being virtuous, and I take pride in being the kind of gal you can rely on to get shit done. (Whether that pride is worth the extraordinary effort expended to attain it is, as they say, the rub.)
So how about you?
Or for starters, the collective “you” that formed the basis for my inspiration and conclusions throughout the book.* As I was writing Fuck No!, I conducted an anonymous survey that asked people what their motivations are for saying yes when they really want to say no. (It has not escaped me that this feedback was gathered from a bunch of people who said “yes” to taking an online survey. I appreciate you suckers.)
Among the most popular responses were:
I feel like I have no choice.
I feel guilty.
I don’t want to be rude.
I don’t want to seem lazy.
I’m worried I’ll regret it.
I’m just a pushover.
If any of these sound familiar, then I’m here to tell you—specifically, YOU—that you do have a choice and you can say no without feeling guilty, being rude, appearing lazy, getting walked all over, or burning out for fear of missing out.
But first, you need to figure out why you say yes all the goddamn time.
The Yes-Men cometh
After communing with all of the hang-ups and insecurities and micro-masochisms revealed by my survey, I created four categories that will serve as your baseline diagnostic throughout Fuck No!:
These are the Yes-Men. Which one are you?
We’re going to spend this section figuring it out, and the rest of the book learning what to do about it. But as you read through the descriptions in the following pages, don’t get fixated on your first inkling of recognition and then skip over the rest. We all contain multitudes.
For example, I myself am a People-Pleasing Overachiever (or a recovering one, anyway). I’ve never identified as a Pushover, but there’s a first time for everything, so I won’t rule it out. And as for FOMO (“fear of missing out,” in the commonly understood manner of missing out on something fun), I’m honestly content to let other people go to parties and stuff without me. I am exceedingly fond of my couch. But I do experience that I-should-say-yes-when-I-want-to-say-no feeling in other ways—like when it comes to missing out on a business opportunity. I worry that if I say no this time, I may be closing a potentially lucrative door forever; it’s not that I want it now, so much as I don’t want to not have the option to want it in the future.
(Weirdly though, while I can think of several occasions when I should not have said yes to an “opportunity” that turned out to be a total clusterfuck, I can’t immediately call to mind a situation in which I’ve regretted saying no. Huh. Interesting.)
Anyway, let’s meet the Yes-Men, shall we?
You say yes when you want to say no because…
You hate to disappoint others. You feel obligated. You feel guilty. You want people to like you and/or you don’t want to be rude. You’re a legit nice person who is sometimes too nice for your own good. You say yes to friends and family in need, but also to enemies, strangers, and Jehovah’s Witnesses just so they won’t feel bad. You agree to dates you’re not interested in and you do favors like they’re going out of style.
Saying no instead will help you…
Place much-needed value on your own happiness. You’ll stop being taken advantage of by people who don’t have your best interests at heart. You’ll gain more downtime, plus the energy to enjoy it. Become a Me-Pleaser!
Praise for Sarah Knight:
"Self-help to swear by." —The Boston Globe
"Hilarious . . . truly practical." —Booklist
- "As far as we're concerned, Sarah Knight is our life coach. Her latest No F*cks Given guide is all about the power of saying 'no.' It's filled with pep talks and sage advice for how to say "no" with confidence--and without fear. Consider this your 2020 mood."—HelloGiggles
- "Pragmatic, profane, irreverent."—The Guardian
- "A compendium of comebacks and replies for when you just don't want to. This has everything our inner introvert has always needed."—Irish Tatler
- "Witty and sensible... and does what it says on the tin.... Quite brilliant! Maybe not the ideal gift for Granny, mind!"—The Sport (UK)
- "Knight's The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck was a massive hit in 2015 and the follow-up, F*ck No!, will likely prove popular.... [Full of] charts, graphics and tables to fill in and concrete examples of how to say 'no' while sparing someone's feelings. Along with light-hearted advice, Knight neatly guides readers through more serious situations... such as dealing with unpleasant neighbors or avoiding being rushed out of a doctor's appointment [and] setting and enforcing sexual boundaries."—The Independent (UK), "The 5 Biggest Books of December"
- On Sale
- Dec 31, 2019
- Page Count
- 304 pages