The Power of “NO”

No is a complete sentence.

Oprah Winfrey

In doing a little research for my writing today, I found a bunch of guides on how to say no. However, I had trouble finding out why we should say no. For much of human history, we have lived in a culture of achievement and busy-ness. Most of us are juggling so much in our lives – families, careers, school work, household duties, community obligations, etc. The list goes on and on and on and everyone’s list looks different. Even worse, we tend to compare ourselves to those who are doing it all and seem to do it all without breaking a sweat. 

So what do we do when we find our lists are longer than our day and our time is no longer our own? We say “NO”. It can be a hard thing at first, accompanied by guilt, feelings of selfishness, and even fears of missing out (FOMO). But as we learn to say “NO” to everything except what we’ve deemed to be the most important, we have more room for the important things and people – including ourselves. When we say “NO” to being busy, we have more room for joy, peace, and well-being.

Simone Biles provided a prime example of what saying “NO” looks like. In her decision to withdraw from several Tokyo 2021 Olympic events, Biles cited her mental health, specifically mentioning the “twisties” – a gymnastics term for a type of mental block that causes disorientation for gymnasts during their gravity-defying performances. Biles is famous for her signature Triple Double Flip. I find it 100% understandable to be cautious if I were struggling to keep track of which way is up, and I’d be lucky to do a graceful somersault!

Biles set a courageous example for athletes everywhere who have been pressured to perform in less than peak condition. Let’s just imagine that she had ignored her instincts and competed anyway – imagine that she had become disoriented mid-flip and missed her landing. Apart from a poor score (oh, the horror!), she could have been looking at career-ending injury, if not worse. Her skills are legendary and unique to her – no one else is doing what she is doing. And if she’s the only one who can do something, she should be the only one to determine if she should be doing it.

I find myself emboldened by Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw. She had done all the work of preparation and qualifying to be competing at the Olympic level; teams had been assembled and trips were planned; she was on the ground in Tokyo, getting ready to compete. It’s hard to imagine a more primed and high-stakes scenario. The strength and fortitude required to acknowledge our shortcomings doesn’t come easily, and yet, characteristic of the exceptional athlete and human she is, Biles knew when to say “NO”. And if she can say “NO”, with stakes that high, I should certainly be able to say “NO” to all the small and average-size obligations that rob me of the time I could be spending on what’s most important to me. Much of the time, what’s most important will be my family and closest friends, but sometimes what’s most important will just be me.

Saying “NO” can feel selfish, indulgent, and overall rude. But just because it feels that way, doesn’t make it true. By maintaining our focus on what matters most, being realistic about our stress loads, and refusing to feel guilty for acknowledging that some things will inevitably fall outside our scope of responsibility, we can begin to benefit from saying “NO”.

One important but often overlooked advantage of saying “NO” is that someone else can say “YES”! When you say “NO”, you open the door for others to step up and shine. Let’s revisit Ms. Biles’ decision to withdraw from those selected events. Rather than ignore her instincts and further the detriment of her mental health, she elected to pass the torch. (Sorry, not sorry about that pun!) Since many of the events she withdrew from were individual events, there wasn’t a standard team alternate. This led to qualifying gymnasts further down the list to get their shot at Olympic glory. Let’s take a look at who got a chance to compete because Simone stepped aside:

  • Jade Carey (US): All-Around
  • McKayla Skinner (US): Vault
  • Jennifer Gadirove (Great Britain): Floor
  • Melanie de Jesus (France): Uneven Bars

Rather than risk it, Biles allowed others to step up and an individual or team alternate who is exceptionally talented was given an opportunity that was previously missed despite qualification.

Saying “NO” is important, for your own sanity and peace of mind, but knowing that doesn’t always make it easy to do. Well, as I said before, there are tons of resources for how to say “NO”. One easy-to-use guide is F*ck no! How to Stop Saying Yes When You Can’t, You Shouldn’t, or You Just Don’t Want To by Sarah Knight. This book provides quick access to advice for various ways to say “NO” in a segment called Different Nopes for Different Folks, such as:

  1. Hard No – “Simple, direct, and nonnegotiable.”
  2. No-for-Now – “Don’t confuse this with a wishy-washy ‘maybe’…”
  3. Pro No – “Sprinkle phrases like As it happens and Upon consideration and I’m afraid that’s unfeasible into your emails.”
  4. No-and-Switch – “Did you know that you can say no to one thing but offer an alternative thing THAT YOU PREFER?”
  5. Bonus: Power No – “Less widely applicable than the preceding prototypes, but an equally sound solution under the appropriate circumstances, the Power No is when you issue no reply at all.”

It’s important to remember that saying “NO” is not tactless. In fact, when done properly, saying “NO” should be part of a tactical plan for carving out time for what’s most important in life. By being authentic and honest about what we can really handle, we allow others to do the same. Everyone benefits. 

Included below is a list of resources for self-worth, mental health, courage, and prime examples of all the good that comes from guarding your time and protecting your well-being. Make time for yourself; enrich your life by learning and growing. Fill your own cup – you can’t pour from an empty one! And remember, in order to take care of anyone else, you have to take care of yourself.


Mental Health Matters: #GFCARES

Behavioral Health ND: Help is Here

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text “TALK” to 741-741.


Gold Medal Favorites collection on OverDrive

Courage to Soar by Simone Biles

F*ck no! How to Stop Saying Yes When You Can’t, You Shouldn’t, or You Just Don’t Want To by Sarah Knight.

How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty : and Say Yes to More Time, More Joy, and What Matters Most to You by Patti Breitman and Connie Hatch

The Best Yes by Lysa TerKeurst

What Is a Girl Worth? By Rachael Denhollander

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.

Are u ok? : A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health by Kati Morton, LMFT

Puppy in My Head : A Book About Mindfulness by Elise Gravel

Be Your Own Best Friend Forever! written and illustrated by Gary Robinson ; featuring Jayla Rose

Every Little Letter by Deborah Underwood ; illustrated by Joy Hwang Ruiz

Daniel’s Good Day by Micha Archer

Pass It On by Sophy Henn

Kirsten Pearson

Kirsten Pearson is a Wyoming transplant by way of Arizona. She lives in Grand Forks with her husband Kodee and sweet dog Ivy. She is an avid reader, amateur cross-stitch enthusiast, and tries to learn something new every day.

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