Learning to say, "No, thank you!"

by Ashley Solomon

One of my coworkers, an Indian man in his early forties, recently told me a story. Somewhat overweight and a self-proclaimed “lover of all things food”, he had decided to go get a physical at a hospital in Mumbai, where he was living at the time. He told the physician that, while he used to be an avid volleyball player and fairly active, his new job precluded him from getting exercise, and he had subsequently put on weight. My coworker then asked the physician for suggestions for staying healthy – if there were any exercises that he could recommend. The physician looked at him thoughtfully and said, “Actually, I do have a wonderful exercise that you can do very easily. It won’t cut into your time at work or at home, and it’s so simple that you’ll learn it quickly!” My coworker, excited for a new workout regimen that would fit into his busy lifestyle, asked, “What is it?!” The physician then said to him, “You can do it at every meal! Look, I’ll even demonstrate.” And then very slowly began shaking his head from side to side. “If you like, you can add the verbal, ‘No, thank you.’”

I loved this story because, despite not being an Indian man for whom it was customary to be served all meals by others, it hit close to home. For me, as I’m sure for many of you, saying no to others offering colorful cocktails and tasty treats is something I find incredibly difficult.  From coworkers’ donuts to aunts’ potatoes, turning down an offering of food can feel like telling your grandmother that she can take her green bean casserole and shove it – rude, ungrateful, and just all around icky.

Of course, not everyone finds the polite rejection difficult, but for those of us who do, this issue seems endless. This is likely because, for us, the challenge of saying no doesn’t stop with the pastries; it extends to other areas as well. Like babysitting the neighbor’s dog. Or doing an extra report at work. Or baking five dozen brownies at eleven o’clock at night for the third grade Christmas party.

And that’s precisely why this issue is important – because by not saying no we are, of course, saying yes. Yes, I am not my own top priority (you are!). Yes, my happiness is in your hands. Yes, I will make yet another sacrifice. Yes, I will let your needs/feelings/desires come before mine. You didn’t realize accepting that slice of coffee cake said so much, huh?

But it does!

This is of course not to say that you should not accept and enjoy the coffee cake freely and with wild abandon, but only if that is what you want to do. If you accept because it seems socially appropriate or because you don’t want to look a certain way (e.g. rude or like you’re dieting when no one else is) or you don’t want others to think certain things (e.g. She’s just not eating it in front of us because she’s embarrassed of her weight! or What a stick in the mud he is!), then it’s time to re-evaluate.

Most cultures, ours being no exception, place a heavy emphasis on food. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that we place too much emphasis on food. It becomes part of every occasion and nearly all of our interactions. (Experiment: Imagine walking into someone’s home for a social event – even a funeral – and not finding a single morsel. What are your immediate reactions? Mine would be “pissed off.”) This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but becomes an issue when we use the food to the exclusion of trying to connect in other ways. And all of this emphasis on food means that for individuals trying to lead a healthier, more balanced lifestyle, the pressure is always on. We stop listening to our levels of hunger or needs of bodies and listen only to the nagging voice telling us what we “should” do (which prevents Mindful Eating). We are taught to feel that saying no is an insult, when in fact it’s an assertion of our own needs and desires. It’s standing up for not only our bodies, but for our psyches as well.

The amazing thing is that when we begin to say no to “small things” like a cookie or a gin and tonic, we learn how it feels to put ourselves first. And that feeling can translate into a power to reclaim ourselves in other areas of our lives – with our personal time, our work. our relationships.

So, I’m interested to hear how some of you have mastered this issue (or are at least at the intermediate level) handle these types of situations. If you have thoughts or suggestions, leave a comment below!

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8 Comments to “Learning to say, "No, thank you!"”

  1. Should saying “no” apply to my daughter when she asks for things? Just checking!! Dad

  2. saiying no has never been something I can do,obviously saying no to a desert is very hard, but saying no to one’s children and grandchildren is almost impossible. Do you think at my age I can change? I’m sure your answer would be a resounding yes. Thanks for the thougt, I love your writing. Love

  3. Um, I’m still in the process of learning to do this. Not just with food, but with everything. Keeping on topic, though, I recently stopped drinking soda (which I didn’t like anyway — I wanted the flavor/sugar but hate the carbonation), stopped snacking, and am cutting back on desserts. Going for more soups and salads instead of giant baked potatoes and pizzas. It’s not even about wanting to lose weight, but rather wanted to eat better, to take better care of myself, to have more energy and feel good inside and out.

    It’s definitely a process, though. I mean, I’ve given up sodas before, just as an example. But then you have 1 at a party, and then at dinner, and suddenly you’re drinking sodas daily without even realizing.

    So yeah. Learning to say no is habit to cultivate. I’m working on it!

  4. Very insightful, I always think that saying no can be one of the most difficult things to do, be it to food or doing a task. Sometimes it’s hard to not feel “forced” into saying yes to things that you really don’t want, especially when the question then becomes do I actually want that bag of chips that was just offered to me or am I really just taking it because it was offered and I feel bad saying no? I actually don’t even like chips! Either way, it is something I will continue working on…

    I’m still trying to figure out how to say “no” to my wife when she asks me to run up three flights of stairs to get her socks, or four blocks back home in 95 degree weather when she forgets something… But I think that will be one of those marriage sacrifices that I continue to make…

  5. Drinks: Hey, let me buy you a drink! me: sure, i’d like a cranberry juice with soda (btw, looks spectacular and fancy in a glass, especially with a slice of lemon) – This way i’m not being rude and who can’t use a cranberry juice with soda once in a while?

  6. I never say “no” especially when it comes to food. Recenty, I began trying and it’s wierd how liberating it feels to say, “no, I don’t want a snack” or “no, I’ve had enough.” I certainly don’t say no enough but I’m trying.

  7. Ashley this is a great post! I have been trying to do this lately, do what I want and not worry about what others think. I need to work on the food end of it though, haha! I have an incredibly hard time refusing desserts! Anyway, recently i’ve said no to going out on tuesday after work this month and now one of my friends isn’t talking to me very much. Not like we used to talk. I know there are other things going on in her life that might be the cause and it has nothing to do with me, but i can’t help but wonder if she’s upset w/me for not going out lately. Any thoughts?

    • I think that, unfortunately, you hit on a pretty common dilemma. I think that more often than we realize we’re forced to choose between health (or money or time management, or whatever reason you chose to stop going out on Tuesdays…) and certain relationships. I think often people (particularly if they are newer or less close friends) don’t understand when we make choices for ourselves that don’t align with the choices they make for themselves. Stick to your guns though, because you have amazing friends who will respect your choices (hopefully you know who they are!).

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