The Story of “No”

feature image by Robin Roemer 

It was June 2009 and I’d been convinced to hike Half Dome, a rock formation at Yosemite National Park. If you know me or my work at all, you probably felt surprised by that first sentence because that’s not the “me” you’ve gotten to know via this very website. I’m not a person who does things that I know I’m gonna hate, feel uncomfortable about, and/or that I’m doing solely to make other people happy. But back then, I was that person.

It wasn’t until the day I found myself lying on my back on the gym floor, feeling an amount of pain a group of adults expected me to experience without complaint or comment, that I started to change. I was a junior in college and the women’s basketball team trainer was asking me if I wanted to be there at all and I was, for the first time ever, actually considering my answer instead of just saying “yes.” I hadn’t been able to walk without pain for eight months, and nobody really gave a shit. I said “I don’t know,” and I left the gym. Now, she hadn’t really posed this as a genuine question. It was a challenge she thought would inspire me to do what she wanted me to do, but little did she know… she’d awoken a monster. (A very cute monster.)

But back to the hike. I didn’t want to climb a big rock for 12 hours. I had no particular desire to be around those people for 12 hours. There was literally no part of it that sounded appealing to me. I said no so many times — probably a cool dozen. I don’t think I’ve even asked a particular ex-girlfriend to get back with me a dozen times, and that is without a doubt the most desperate I’ve ever been, so I have no clue why they wouldn’t leave me the fuck alone about this trip. A few days before, I’d caved, and before I knew it, I had hiking boots, I was slurping some sort of nutrient gel they told me to eat the day before, and I was in a car that was winding its way around a mountain towards a campground at Yosemite.

loweryosemite

Enjoying nature

After that day in the gym, I started to think about Deciding more: when should I speak up, when should I stand up for myself, when I’d say no, if I’d say yes. I was being haunted by all the times I’d been harassed, mistreated and bullied, been expected to say yes or to put up with shit or to just be quiet, and it bummed me out. It made me feel like I wasn’t being the person I wanted to be or felt like I was. It wasn’t about the show some people make of taking a stand or proving a point or any of that shit. I just wanted to feel better about being me. I think that’s all life really is sometimes — feeling like, despite everything, you are who you want to be. I’m not even saying that who I want to be is necessarily a good person (and that’s been a journey of its own) but I think that I’m being truer to myself. I mean life doesn’t have a fucking purpose. It’s honestly pointless. But I think you can make something of the pointlessness. Pointlessness doesn’t have to be bad.

Eventually the hike was upon us. I was maybe two miles in, climbing a set of stairs that seemed to go on forever next to a waterfall that was making said stairs slippery. It was too fucking early, I was too fucking miserable, and everyone else seemed like they wanted to be there. I took a sip of Smart Water which I thought was disgusting but put into my Camelbak anyway because I’d been pestered to death about the “electrolytes” and I thought, “You know what? Fuck this. I’m going back.” “Why?” they asked. Why, why, why. And that’s when I got to the second piece of the No puzzle. Why? Because I don’t fucking want to do this anymore.

At some point we’re made to believe that “I don’t want to” isn’t enough of a reason. It is. It’s polite to offer further explanation, especially in close relationships, especially in situations that affect others, but simply having the gut feeling of “nah” is enough for you to justify any choice you will ever make.

I walked down the trail, seeing the confused faces of people just starting, alone. I got back to the camper and laid down inside of it, alone, with nothing but half of the Subway sandwich I’d been planning to eat on the hike. I sat at a picnic table and listened to Wale, alone. I wrote fleeting thoughts and new ideas on scraps of paper and napkins like a version of Jack Kerouac that a person of color could actually relate to, alone. And then I went on my own hike but I called it a “nature walk” because it wasn’t uphill and that’s actually the component of hiking I find undesirable. I was pissed that I let myself feel like I was “not fun” because I didn’t want to do something. I was pissed that I said yes to something I didn’t wanna do. You don’t have to try everything to make sure you don’t like it. Sometimes you just know. Other times you don’t know and you try it and it sucks and that’s okay, too.

This year, from April 20th until June 12th, I made some variation of “no” my Facebook status every day (except one day I put “yes” because I needed it that day… people freaked out). When I started doing it, it was just something I found vaguely funny but couldn’t put my finger on why. By the end it was something that I could count on for strength which I promise grosses me out more than anyone reading this. Whether people realized it or not, they were empowering me to truly embrace saying “no.” Instead of feeling like I was being negative, I was owning doing what I wanted. It shouldn’t be easier to say yes than no.

This is no

This is not an invitation to friend me on Facebook, please don’t.

While on the nature walk, I all of a sudden had to go to the bathroom Real Bad. I have a pretty strong stomach but I’m guessing all those weird protein packs and energy supplement thingies I’d been instructed to take weren’t being burned off and they needed to get out or something. I tried to swiftly walk back to camp but I knew I wasn’t gonna make it so I shot two poop pellets out at probably the speed of light. I’ve never had to go to the bathroom that bad in my life (besides this one time I was but a wee babe and my mom told us not to get out the car no matter what and I was such a stickler for the rules that I waited too long to make a dash for the Wal-mart bathroom and shit myself crossing the parking lot). So that’s the lesson here. If you say yes to things you don’t wanna do, you’re gonna have to scatter off a hiking trail to emergency poop under a tree in a national park.

As a woman, I know it can be hard to say no. We’re trained to be nice and accommodating and put other’s comfort before our own. So perhaps be more mindful. When you ask people shit, ask them without expectation. Someone told me that a lot: offer things without expectation — and I agree. The problem was this person’s version of that included me not expecting basic human compassion or respect, which is neither here nor there, I just need to include that, so like, “trust the message, not the messenger” (which isn’t a colloquialism but should be). I’m not saying that everyone should be like me. I know everyone doesn’t have that privilege. But if you can… and if you want, say “no” more and demand that, on every front, your no’s are taken seriously.

Credit: Robin Roemer

Credit: Robin Roemer

This was a really complicated way for me to tell a story about shitting in a forest under the guise of encouraging people to own their agency. See you guys later.


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Brittani Nichols is a Los Angeles based comedy person. When she's not tweeting about white people or watching television, she's probably eating pizza. Actually, she's probably doing all three of those things concurrently and when she's not doing THAT, she's sleeping. Brittani also went to Yale and feels weird about mentioning it but wants you to know.

Brittani has written 330 articles for us.

51 Comments

  1. This is great! I always feel like I’m letting people down if I say no, so I say yes and then back out at the last minute which usually just makes me feel shittier. Thanks for the good advice!

  2. I had myself commited to a psychotherapy ward in a psychiatric clinic once.
    We had a legit schedule of different therapies every day.
    So one day it was *Dance Therapy* in the gym, and we were told to partner up and each pair was given a dodgeball.
    What did we do with it?
    We threw it to each other.
    All across the gym.
    Every time with all the force we could muster and with the loudest “No!” possible.
    With a bunch of other depressives on a hardwood floor in my socks, that’s how I learned it.
    To say No.
    I still must admit, though, it is SO much easier to say Yes.

    • No lie, there was a birthday card to B in the Autostraddle Insider, a lovely graphic, and the top half was pictures of B against a background of “NO NO NO” and I printed it out and hung it in my kitchen.

      I did that because I need frequent reminders that I can and should and in fact HAVE TO say no to things, or I will end up doing none of the things well or the away that I want to do them. I also just have fond memories of the “no” statuses on B’s facebook. Maybe it was a grossly strengthening thing for B but for me it was also weirdly affirming, particularly on days when lots of other things on my newsfeed were awful news stories about violence and racism and a heteronormative world.

      I’m saying yes to the no.

  3. “By the end it was something that I could count on for strength which I promise grosses me out more than anyone reading this.”

    It is lines like this that deepen and continue to expand the wide canyon of love I have for everything you do (or, you know, don’t do)

  4. Brittani, I got a crush on you at A-Camp and while this article has only made it stronger, it also informed me that we could never be together because I feel wholly positive about hikes, electrolytes, and shitting in nature. Alas.

  5. This is so true! I remember that I ones said “No, I don’t feel like it” and I was told it wasn’t a good enough reason. But it’s much more honest than some bullshit excuse about being busy. And I think in the end people do appreciate it more that if I show up, it’s because I really want to be there.

  6. At some point we’re made to believe that “I don’t want to” isn’t enough of a reason. It is. It’s polite to offer further explanation, especially in close relationships, especially in situations that affect others, but simply having the gut feeling of “nah” is enough for you to justify any choice you will ever make.

    I LOVE THIS.

  7. this is really good. i also had a long stretch a while ago when i was saying “no” (more specifically “no, never”) to everything because i thought it was funny, and it was extremely funny, but it also had something to do with all the other stuff you pointed out, and i’ll think about that more now. thanks & i hope we’re dressed exactly the same again today.

  8. “As a woman, I know it can be hard to say no. We’re trained to be nice and accommodating and put other’s comfort before our own.” AH, yes, this is so true. I feel guilty when I say no, so I say yes all the time, I do way too much just to please others. No, seriously, before my Big Realization, a complete stranger could’ve asked me to kill someone and I’d’ve said “Yes okay I’ll do it” just to please them. My brother actually bought me a book on how to say no earlier this year. I am a whole new (sometimes selfish) person now, despite only having read like 3 pages.

  9. Ugh, this is so amazing and I love it so much. Thank you Brittani

    And I love this- “I wrote fleeting thoughts and new ideas on scraps of paper and napkins like a version of Jack Kerouac that a person of color could actually relate to”

  10. Hail, Brittani, Good Stuff. I have been learning over and over the lesson of no or the power of no – for many years & over many situations. My big thing now is trying to pause before I agree to something I really don’t want to do and say something like, “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.” I have also noticed that generally I am the one who pays the biggest price when I agree to something disagreeable to me…Currently, and this is my cleverly disguised rant on ‘doing too much @ work’, I am trying to set boundaries at work – when to say that’s too much without risking my job completely.
    Generally, I still much support from friends before and after I say NO. and oddly enough, I often need support to keep my no a no, you know?

  11. my therapist is always trying to get me to say no more often and i’m like “okayyy [can’t even say no to saying no lmao] but it’s super scary??”

    but honestly pooping in the woods sounds scarier so…this maybe made me willing to give it a try.

  12. “At some point we’re made to believe that “I don’t want to” isn’t enough of a reason. It is. It’s polite to offer further explanation, especially in close relationships, especially in situations that affect others, but simply having the gut feeling of “nah” is enough for you to justify any choice you will ever make.”

    This is exactly what I needed to hear today when I am trying to follow my heart to leave my job when I move to a new city instead of keeping my current job and working from home. I just do not want to work from home. They keep trying to convince me that I will be good at it and that it will be easier than finding a new job. But I DO NOT CARE. I don’t want to work from home and I won’t!

  13. (first time commenting ahhh) Thank you for this! Exactly what I needed to read today, after realizing this morning that I did not need to feel guilty for saying no to doing an “open mic” performance with a male co-worker (I’m working at a theater camp), then proceeded to do so for the rest of the day. Thank you!

  14. I have a kind of a long story about No and it’s definitely the most I’ve ever shared here, but this article just really, really resonated with me, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

    I realized I was gay last summer. Almost exactly a year ago, actually, although I struggled with it for a few weeks before making any outward moves. A couple months later while visiting the human who helped me realize I was gay, we went to a Farmer’s Market and one of the experiences we shared there was to very much enjoy interacting with a woman at a lemonade stand. This woman told us about a retreat she went on where they practiced saying No over and over again. She said that she felt like it was helpful to her and that she needed to practice again because it’s easy to forget that you’re allowed to say no. I remember this event because of the context, but I didn’t really take the woman’s story to heart.

    Fast forward one year later and I have had to go through some of the most professionally difficult situations I’ve encountered thus far mostly because I still haven’t learned to say no. This was precipitated by and exacerbated depression that I know is related to my inability to care for myself before other people. I’m a therapist and I am very familiar with the airplane analogy (when you’re in an airplane you’re told to put on your oxygen mask before helping anyone else because if you don’t get yours on you’re likely to pass out before you can help anyone), but a lot of factors made it so I didn’t take that to heart and had difficulty saying no even when it wasn’t healthy for me to say yes.

    So, that leads me to today, when my girlfriend and I (my first girlfriend ever, since I was deeply in the closet for most of my twenty-something years) broke up. Largely because she has known very little of the non-depressed me and it’s hard for her to know who I am. Which I do not begrudge her. So, this article just feels very apropos to my life right now because I absolutely need to learn to say no in so many situations. I guess all that to just say thank you. This story was powerful for me in a moment when I could use some power.

  15. this is so good! I’ve just started telling myself that I don’t have to justify my no’s, that it’s not a terrible thing to continue to say no when someone refuses to hear it, and yeah, this is the model of no that I need in this cruel yes-world.

  16. I’m good at NO.

    So good at NO that as a child I made an adult so angry she walked into a pole.

    Bragging aside I’ve hurt myself with NO, closing my self off, pushing myself away from people, opportunities, from good things, from things I deserved and wanted because I was afraid I’d lose the power of NO and be weakened by YES. If you are nothing and have nothing not a thing in the world can control you I thought, but all of that was wrong.

    You can never lose the power of NO, it’s always there even if you have to dig for it.
    It’s in there y’all.

    • SO… Thanks for making me cry in the office, internet stranger!

      I was browsing through the comments section looking for people’s thoughts on the article because I thought to myself “oh this is weird, I don’t relate AT ALL to this article. Saying NO is sooo easy!”

      And then here’s your comment, and I can relate to it SO FUCKING MUCH. It kinda hurts, but like in a good way maybe? Like “yeah ok this is me too. I need to work on this”

      Back when I thought I was straight, I kept saying NO to men because I was sooo afraid of sex. During my PhD, I said no to EVERYTHING that wasn’t work work work: I stopped going out, I lost a lot of friends, I became incapable of carrying a normal conversation. I stopped doing stuff I used to really enjoy, like I was punishing myself for something.

      But now I’ve got a PhD and a good sense of who I am and who I want to date, and NOs aren’t gonna help me meet that person and fall in love.

      So since about a month ago, I promised myself I’d say YES. I’ve been making friends, going out, and hopefully when a cute girl asks me out the old me who wants to say NO out of fear will be gone and I’ll be able to shout a big, proud YES.

      • I’m sorry I made you cry in front of people, but I’m glad you’ve made the journey you have and hope it takes you far.
        To infinity beyond and some cute girl.

        May the Force be with you.

  17. This is perfect. Especially the part about not needing to offer any explanation other than “I don’t want to.” (Also, when it comes to spending time in nature, I fully support the concept of ‘you do you’ – anything else just defeats the purpose)

  18. Love this article! Over the past year or so I’ve started saying No a lot more, but something that has also really helped me is that

    I’ve stopped offering to do things I don’t want to do. I’ve stopped offering to bring people places in my car when actually I’m really tired and just want to go home and chill out. I’ve stopped offering to mind friends’ kids if I really need a day to myself. I’ve stopped rescheduling my own plans to accommodate others when I really want to do the original thing I was going to do.

    Now that doesn’t mean I’ve turned into a complete asshole who does nothing for anyone, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Now that I do things because I genuinely want to I’m a happier person and I no longer feel resentment towards myself and other people for missing out on “me” time or having my plans rearranged when I don’t want them to be. Saying no means that when I say yes, I say it with happiness.

  19. I didn’t understand what a big thing this was until I got older.

    I like knowing that people can say no because then I can trust that yes means yes instead of worrying that they just couldn’t say no.

    On the other hand, I have toddlers. I phrase nearly everything so the only possible answer is yes. I can see how the conditioning happens. I don’t mean this to sound abusive. I leave lots of room choices, but when we have to be in the car in five minutes, no isn’t one of them.

  20. I have so much respect for people who can casually say “No thanks, I’m not into that” or “Nah, that’s not my jam” or whatever. Like, the world will not stop turning just because they say no to something they don’t want to do. Revolutionary.

    Brittani, I’m sorry you got pressured into climbing Half Dome, although that’s something I personally have wanted to do for a long time but haven’t done yet. But I’m glad that you realized that it wasn’t for you and acted on that realization! Way to model the “You Do You” lifestyle!

  21. When I was working at summer camp I was witness to pure genius in the form of a six year old girl. She was sitting and watching the rest of our cabin play a game. When I went over to check on her. I asked if everything was okay and why she wasn’t playing. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “I can’t want to… So I’m not.” She looked shocked when I told her that she didn’t have to and asked what if there was something that she wanted to do while the other kids played. I’m impressed that she was confident and comfortable enough to say no to playing the game. I appreciate that she thought about and tried to want to participate, but her would searching made it clear that she didn’t and she owned it.

    “I can’t want to” is something that I think frequently, and should probably say more often than I do.

  22. “I’m not even saying that who I want to be is necessarily a good person (and that’s been a journey of its own)—”

    This got me really interested, I would love to read an article on this journey!

  23. Finally created an account just to comment here and say THANK YOU for making me feel like being the person who is good at saying no is okay and even a great thing!

    Despite being shy I’ve always been great at saying no to things I didn’t want to do, but I’ve always gotten shit for it. Even my most feminist friends will still force me to keep saying no at least three or four times before they register it at all, while my male friend is also a “no” kind of person and they never ask him more than once. Even when my “no” is accepted, saying it definitely makes me feel like a buzzkill. My friends constantly praise my gf for being “down with everything” and it makes me feel like they prize that above any other way to be, which sucks. I love my gf and how chill she is, but I wish my “no” was respected just as much.

    tl;dr I HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS ABOUT THIS

    Anyway, this helped me see that saying no is admirable and awesome too! Yay!

  24. Until literally last week I felt terrible saying, ‘no’ – specifically, I felt as though ‘no’ meant ‘I owe you something else for giving this response’ – which terrified me, because it meant my ‘no’ was a ‘yes’ and I couldn’t escape a commitment to ‘yes’. For example, instead of just saying, ‘No’, I might say ‘No, but what if we have a coffee next week?’ or, ‘No, I’m not into you, but let’s find some common ground we can laugh about and be friends before I disappear into the crowd in this bar.’ when in truth, I just wanted to say, ‘no’. And for me, part of realising this autonomy was also realising that:

    1. I was brought up in a gendered way, and part of my gendering was being taught to be polite and considerate of everyone else’s needs before mine, and;

    2. this gender-defined upbringing was attached to my being a cis-gendered ‘girl’. Avoiding ‘no’ meant you were being a ‘good girl’, and I’d never been taught to be a woman: being a woman, in any cis or non-cis sense, was inherently and inexplicably bad. Being a woman, to me, meant being resilient, and unlikeable. Which is total, total bullshit – identifying as female or as a woman or as a girl is awesome, but I didn’t realise I still thought of myself as the complicit yes-girl I had been brought up to be, until last week. Last week there was a moment where I grew up, and I stood differently, and I realised I didn’t owe anyone a damned thing, and I could feel the ground firm beneath my feet as I said to a man who had pushed in front of me at an airport terminal, ‘No buddy. Nope. No.’

    And he apologised, and he racked right off. And it felt awesome. I rate ‘no’ highly – like, 8 out of 10 rainbows.

  25. I’m really happy Rachel called us assholes for not reading and appreciating this post.

    I want to go shit in the woods and say maybe more often…yes and no are both too concrete. I need the ability to change my mind.

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