The Gift of Saying “No” to Others and “Yes” to Yourself

by: Jennifer R. Keup

The week of Thanksgiving, I sat in my regular yoga studio listening to my instructor begin the class with a statement of intentions for our 90 minutes together. Much to my surprise she shared the following: “Thanksgiving is the time when we might expect to engage in a practice with the intention of ‘gratitude.’ While I certainly support the idea and practice of gratitude, I would rather spend our time on the intention of setting appropriate boundaries. By saying ‘no’ to family members, to food, to holiday obligations, or to other things, we are often saying ‘yes’ to ourselves in the healthiest of ways.”


Despite my initial shock, I have revisited my yoga instructor’s sentiment many times since I first heard it sitting cross-legged on my mat a few weeks back. Saying “no” to others is something that I, like many of us, find very difficult. It would let people down. It would allow opportunities to whiz by me that parts of me are afraid I was never worthy of in the first place and may never come around again. It isn’t considered nurturing or empathetic. It suggests that I am incapable of balancing everything that I am “supposed” to do. It is selfish. Right?

And yet the words of the contributors to this wonderful blog community remind me regularly that none of that is true:

  • As Brandy Turnbow said in a #SAFeminist blog entry in December of last year, in the face of “small wins met with larger defeats or complete restructuring of purpose” and the anxiety associated with the end of term and upcoming holidays, she relies “heavily on my simple meditation of Space and Grace. Both capitalized; they’re that important. Space to attend to my self-care and self-reflection. Grace not to hold guilt for prioritizing my needs.”
  • Amy Howton reminds us that self-care is important to our community and our work as well as to us as individuals and quotes Audre Lorde to say “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” Amy states that, as feminists in our field, we must tend to ourselves in order to maintain our work as leaders and advocates. Critical to that process is the “ability to create and sustain healthy boundaries with relationships and with work/life.”
  • Jennifer Stripe counsels that “Balance is Bunk” anyway so “delineating between a ‘must do’ – the priority list – versus a ‘nice to do’ – the wish list – in all of [our] roles” is critical to our efficiency, effectiveness, and existential peace. When we get to the point when integrating one more thing is just not possible, we need to accept the priorities that our choices illustrate at that time and release our mommy/spousal/friend/employee/supervisor/[insert appropriate term here] guilt in service to ourselves.
  • And Jodi Koslow Martin shared in her holiday post to this blog in 2014, that what we get out of saying “no” to others and diminishing the obligations that we begrudgingly shoulder is the space within ourselves for the expression of true joy.

So, my wish to all of you during this winter break and as the calendar turns is to give yourself the permission to say “no” to others and see it as a way of saying “yes” to yourself (I promise to work on this too!). Say “no” to holiday obligations, work responsibilities, familial guilt, political argument as we face an election year, your own expectations of yourself, society’s script for what you “should” be, emotionally-taxing people, etc. The action does not have to be a big, public statement. It can be the smallest gesture if that is all you can do. It can be holding just the tiniest bit back. However, choose yourself in that “no” unapologetically and with intentionality. Feel empowered to live the words that our friends and colleagues have shared on this blog: give yourself the gift of space and grace as a personal, professional, and political act and release yourself from the demands of trying to balance it all to allow for true peace and real joy.

With that holiday wish and in gratitude to my yoga instructor, fellow bloggers, and #SAFeminist community, the spirit in me salutes the spirit in you. Namaste.


2 thoughts on “The Gift of Saying “No” to Others and “Yes” to Yourself

  1. I so appreciate your post and the articulation of something that, at least for me personally, has been a major point of tension in my own adult life.

    One of the greatest gifts Lena ever gave me was to say no to something I’d asked of her. While her initial response was disappointing, her explanation–that she had decided to spend more time on more personal things–was liberating. If a great personal hero, and hero of the discipline could say no, I thought maybe someday I could as well. I think of this often and have slowly begun to exercise it. Progress is a snail’s pace–my conversation with Lena happened more than 10 years ago…and I’ve just in the last year or so had enough confidence to begin the practice.

    Here is what I’ve discovered–saying no to the “I shoulds” and “I don’t really want tos buts” has helped me to be able to say yes to the bigger, more important things that bring fulfillment and energy. I just wish I’d learned how to do it sooner.

  2. I’ve read through most of the posts on this blog, and I have learned a lot. I am worried about the sort of altruistic egoism in this post stemming from a 1970s-esque self-help dogma. Sure, we need to take care of ourselveS, and, most often, we cannot care for others if we don’t practice responsible self care. But when we preach too much self-care, we often forget to hear others, forget that we can learn from others by engaging not their perspectives. Feminism–particularly white feminism–too often focuses on the female self at the expense of the minority woman and the economically disadvantaged woman. Say yes to yourself, but also say yes to those in need. Say yes to yourself, but also recognize that who you are is interconnected to others. In order to say yes to yourself, you must say yes to others, because who you are is somewhere in an intersectionality and interdependence of identities and persons.

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