The Spiritual Art of Saying No

Friday, August 22, 2014 - 6:14am
Photo by Stephen Brace

The Spiritual Art of Saying No

Taxi drivers have been some of my best therapists.

Monday morning, I disembarked a ferry with a sea of other passengers trying to get the most out of the last days of summer and made it out to the parking lot. I approached a van cab with a woman who looked to be in her 60s sitting in the driver’s seat, yapping on her cell phone. I waited patiently while she finished her conversation: “Look, I’m not coming in Thursday, so you’re going to have to figure out another plan. No, I’m serious. That’s the deal. Figure it out.”

She hung up. I confirmed that she was free and then climbed into the back seat. “I’m sorry about that — just had to finish up that call,” she said, turning back to look at me. She didn’t smile apologetically, but had a kind voice and a genuine tone.

“Please don’t apologize,” I said. “I’ve been trying to learn how to say no with more clarity, earlier on, so this was a good, impromptu lesson.”

“You got to, girl. If you don’t learn to say no, you’ll either be miserable or die. One or the other.”

I’d never heard it put so bluntly, but as we wound our way through the moss-covered trees of beautiful Bainbridge Island, this spiky-haired, taxi driving, Reiki master schooled me in the spiritual art of saying no. From her perspective, if you don’t learn to say no, you use your energy in ways that don’t make you happy. Do enough of that and you actually get physically ill — heart attacks, cancer, autoimmune illnesses; utter enough unconscious yeses and your body says the biggest, most finite no of all.

It was pretty convincing.

(Feggy Art / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

It also wasn’t the first time I’d thought about the spiritual art of saying no and my pathetic lack of skill in it. It’s not that I’m a doormat. So often when this issue gets talked about, I feel like it is portrayed as a problem of wilting flower women who just want to make everyone happy. I don’t mind disappointing people so much as I’m voraciously and indiscriminately interested in the world. I want to learn everything, be everywhere, collaborate with everyone. In thoroughly modern terms, I’ve got major FOMO about anything that fascinates me.

There is a vitality in that, but there is also a violence in it. As Thomas Merton wrote:

"The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist...destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

Forget balance. Balance is bullshit. What I mostly crave is integrity and joy — a sense that I’m doing what I do excellently and getting a lot of pleasure out of it, that I’m used up and useful.

I’ve noticed lately that when I try to do too much, the things I should have said no to manifest as monsters under the bed. I wake up at 2 a.m. and am immediately aware of the outsized presence of that thing that, in the light of day, seemed barely possible, and, in the unforgiving darkness, I realize I can’t faithfully execute. I write rambling emails backing out. I apologize sloppily under the moonlight, as if drunk on over-commitment. I hurt people. There’s no grace in it.

(Jodi Schaap / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

I’ve been learning to grow things over the last year — my daughter, first and foremost, but also plants and trees that we share with our co-housing community. Louise is the garden guru in our little community, and she’s been showing me how to trim back the bougainvillea and layer leaves into the compost and pick the artichokes before they explode purple. One of the first things she ever taught me was how to tend to the apple trees.

I was about halfway through my pregnancy, finally and noticeably carrying a creature in my belly rather than an extra layer of blueberry glaze donuts. It was a sunny Saturday and Louise — well into her 70s, willowy, and often wearing a t-shirt with some slogan of peace — showed me how each branch of the tree can only reasonably support two apples. You have to go, branch by branch, and pluck off little baby apples until every branch has only as much as it can support.

It felt sad to me at first, twisting off these hopeful little apples and dropping them into a bucket. They amassed quickly, collectively robbed of possibility by this big-bellied goddess of destruction lumbering her way along the front gate. I felt bad. But then I looked over and watched as Louise pruned without fanfare, gentle and direct. She had lived long enough to know that in order for some things to thrive, some things must die.

You say no so you can say yes. It’s sad in the way that all limitations are, but also liberating. You are human and finite and precious and fumbling. This is your one chance to spend your gifts, your attention, most importantly your love, on the things that matter most. Don’t screw it up by being sentimental about what could have been or delusional about your own capacity. Have the grace to acknowledge your own priorities. Prune and survive.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



Balance is bullshit. What I crave is integrity and joy. Amen and amen.

Totally agree :P

As strange as it may seem: Pruning is an essential part of growth.
For trees, bushes and people! For everything alive... to grow.

Great article. The Thomas Merton quote is wonderfully chilling and the gardening metaphor apt. The so-called theory of the over-pleasing "cancer personality" was debunked decades ago. It's an insult to those of us who have 80% breast cancer rate in our families--including a father who said know quite adeptly--to read that once more. Saying no to glib pronouncements about others' health, I find, leaves more room for compassion and understanding. Thanks again! I. Glad I found your posts and look forward to the next.

Saying no to glib pronouncements of others' health- oh my, I'm with you on that. For nine years I walked around with a dislocated shoulder and a torn ligament, because one doctor after another took over the view -formed by a doctor at teh Dutch disability agency, without the benefit of even an x-ray- that the debilitating pain I was enduring (electric shock-like pain when lifting or moving my arm, tingling and sudden loss of strength, migraine-like headaches that left me crawling on the ground or passed out after doing simple tasks) was "ALL BETWEEN MY EARS". (The doctors did happily give me anti-depressants, doncha know.) Because women don't want to work, and psychosomatize everything, as teh conventional wisdom goes. Glib trivialisation of women's health complaints is alive and well in The Netherlands, just as it is anywhere else, in spite of all the propaganda to the contrary. After NINE years an MRI was finally done and there it was, for all to see- and continue to ignore, because these professionals stick together and protect each other, just like everywhere else. All kinds of things cause cancer, but glib pronouncements can definitely lead to the most horrendous cancers of all: indifference and blaming the victim. I too am glad I found this post. It helps me to see how much progress I've made in the beautiful art of saying no (to other people's definition of me, and my health.)

Such an important piece, especially for women, who in my experience as a therapist for 40 years, struggle even more (on the whole) with the word "no" and in the end it is all too frequently because they want to please everyone except themselves, avoid rejection and appear to be "wonderful, caring, giving" while inside they are shriveling up and starving their own spirit. Thank you for this piece.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Hi Mary. I'd appreciate hearing more about your experience. I'm married to a wonderful woman who is a high-achieving, well-educated professional and a really gracious mother. I also hear her struggles too; she compares herself often with other mothers who are able to volunteer in our children's classrooms or organize nights out with other parents. She says "no" a lot but struggles with it too is my sense.

Whereas I find it quite easy to say no to this type of community persuasion but find it quite difficult (almost impossible) to say no in my workplace. I guess I'm interested in learning more about the situational aspects of saying no. The gender categories seem too complex, but maybe we're outliers in this respect?

Mary and Trent (et al.), thanks for conversing. I'd also add that women receive much positive reinforcement for denying our own well-being in favor of serving others. We are also punished disproportionately if we do take care of ourselves. Trent, I have been I sorry to see how severe this can be in the workplace: I compare my own experience, ruefully, to 'The Giving Tree,' for it has become clear I am expected and socialized to take on responsibilities without rights, recognition, or geniune authority, while my male colleagues experience the inverse. That sounds pretty grouchy, but my workplace has been investigated for this inequity. And so the sad thing is that many women are right to think that we are better off to sacrifice ourselves in the short game rather than to focus on the big picture. (Actually, I'm not sure of what is short or big . . . ). Anyway, more cheerily, one thing that has influenced me considerably, from my own spiritual practice, is what I have heard described as a Celtic notion of hospitality, and it has helped me to have hospitality toward myself as well as toward others. When a female (or male) friend or student is being hard on herself, too, I will also ask, whether she would ask of someone else what she asks of herself, and she will say that she never would.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Very helpful, Rose Marie. Thank you.

Hi, Trent. What helps me is to realize that everything I do is in service of some need that I have - connection, contribution, financial security, play, intellectual stimulation, etc. Sometimes my need for financial security or professional contribution is really alive and I choose to work longer hours than normal. This cuts into my family meal preparation time so I choose to pick up a meal on the way home instead or let my husband take the kids out for hamburgers. It helps me to be aware of the needs I'm meeting with a particular choice and the needs I'm not meeting with that same choice. In that way, I can see both as options and decide which is most alive for me at that time. I also spend less time feeling guilty about whatever choices I make when I realize this choice was in service of something important for me even though it was at a cost to something else. When I keep my focus on my underlying needs, the range of options for how to meet as many of these as possible seems to expand.

So sad so many never learn the art of setting boundaries.

Trent Gilliss's picture

It is an art — one that sometimes is not rewarded in the workplace. Tips? ;)

Hello Trent--

Seeking reward is the prison. You just identified it here. Don't seek reward, because no one will reward you for loving your child, giving to your friends, or being who you are. These things are rewards in themselves, and sometimes not immediately, but over long periods of time. People will, however, be inspired by the way you live, and perhaps choose to live that way themselves. That's how we transform the world.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Thanks, friend. On its face, this seems to be wise and true. If only the world worked in such a way. Saying no comes with a cost — and it could be one's job, or a promotion, or a raise. This is the conundrum that I've faced. Transforming the world is much too large; I wish I were that aspirational but...

Hello Trent--Of course saying no comes with a cost. We live in a culture which promises us that we can live a cost-less life, that we can have it all. That is simply not reality. Every decision we make is a trade-off decision. That is why the author wrote about priorities. I think the answers to your questions lie in further questions: What are your priorities? What are you willing to sacrifice, what costs are you willing to incur, to have the things you most value?

Transforming the world happens on the smallest levels, because those are the levels on which we have agency. It is not a big, heroic undertaking, but an outgrowth of who you are, of small, everyday acts, including deciding to prioritize certain things over others. By making real choices--real trade-off decisions--in your life, you deeply affect others and even show them the way.

One door may close w "No", but others open. Yes, there may be risk, but calculate yours and create happiness for yourself and your loved ones.

I suppose everything comes with a price. What is the payback for the job, promotion, or raise? Are you happy now? Are you waiting for the payback in the future? If you're waiting for something at the price of now I think you might benefit in seeing what you can include each and every day that you are working toward having in the future. I'm not sure if that makes full sense or not -- I'm not saying we shouldn't work towards future gains but we shouldn't sacrifice our happiness for some illusive outcome.

Thank you for this. My body is aching with the extreme stress of having too many good things to do. I need to be careful to say no, especially in this season. Elizabeth Gilbert has a great post about balance being bullshit too. Very wise and helpful.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Katie, do you have a link I could share with others?

I actually was just reading the post I think you're looking for.

Here's the link:

I love your line, "balance is bullshit...what I crave is integrity and joy". It's such a great insight.

"You say no so you can say yes. . . This is your one chance to spend your gifts, your attention, most importantly your love, on things that matter most."

A friend and I were discussing "no" the other day, both of us feeling overwhelmed but compelled to do things because "somebody has to." This post is timely for me, and stunning. I'll keep and reread it, and I'll share it with my friend.

I have a friend that taught me a fun approach to saying no..... It's to say
this..."That's a great idea! Let's not do that ! :)

Trent Gilliss's picture

Excellent! Made me smile.


I can only imagine the response to the statement "that 's a great idea; let 's not do that". Ido believe balance doesn't 't work . You can do it but what have you achieved. For me it is total frustration in not having time to excel in the priority areas of my life that fulfill my well being. I'm working hard to get this straight but as yet it hasn't totally been successful. Each time I allow myself to say no I feel a great sense of success. I am constantly monitoring myself. Hopefully in time the decision to say yes or no is clearer. I grew up not knowing I could say no so it is taking me a long time to realize I can own that word and still contribute to others, make a difference and especially to myself.

Courtney's caution to us is powerful. It is a sobering reminder that what we tolerate we promote - "cooperation in violence to ourselves" (Merton quote). This is a brilliant and artfully crafted reflection inviting us to thrive as an exercise of leadership in creating a healthier world. Thank you!!

Courtney, it was interesting reading this post. Just a few weeks ago, I asked you for something and you very gracefully and in a lovely way said no, in a way that impressed me and didn't diminish me in any way. I sense you're actually very good at doing this already! Thanks for sharing your lesson with others. It's good stuff.

Excellent advice. But your slip is also showing a bit. You describe your cabbie as being on her cell phone "yapping," which indicates you were annoyed by it. That's okay; understandable even. But then, don't make out like you were the placid guru/student in the backseat, turning away her unnecessary apology as you took in this life lesson. Let it be what it was.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Davies, I hear where you're coming from. But I'd ask that you enter into this as a question rather than assertion that comes off as judgmental. It's a vulnerable place to be a writer and put oneself out there... and crafting the space in between the words is the most treacherous place to be. If you enter this space with Courtney, I have no doubt you'd find it a wonderful conversation to have with her!

Wonderful reminder! Even the brain prunes neurons from early childhood to adolescence.

This hit me right in the heart today. I'm pruning so much in my life right now and really grateful for the clarity of this thoughtful piece. I've danced a big YES dance my whole life and I'm slowing now down to waltz a bit with NO.

I'm gradually learning that life is all about choices. I can't do everything; nor do I really want to. I'm learning that I'm happiest when I say yes to the things that truly give me joy and let other things go.

I so feel this. This is a comprehensive approach to life. There's a calmness and sense of authorial privilege in it that I think correlates to the feeling of liberation you speak of. Our peace is really something we can only give ourselves. Be the gatekeeper to your own mind : )

Fantastic and timely article!!! Learning to set boundaries and then adhering to them takes practice but it works. Putting yourself first and looking out for your best interests is honoring yourself; it's not being "selfish". Big difference. We should never take the martyr route and say 'yes' to commitments we'll later regret.

Excellent and timely article! We should never feel guilty about saying "no", especially as women. Set boundaries and adhere to them. Honor yourself first; it's not being selfish, it's being smart. No one should take the route of being a martyr, which only leads to regrets down the line.

This came to me to read at a time when I needed to read it, so I am grateful to C.E.M. I never had such an apt term for myself as "FOMO about everything that fascinates me" or such a beautifully articulated path to the grace of what she says here. Thank you so much for this.

This came to me to read at a time when I needed to read it, so I am grateful to C.E.M. I never had such an apt term for myself as "FOMO about everything that fascinates me" or such a beautifully articulated path to practicing the grace of what she says here. Thank you so much for this.

So years and years a wise woman's office,( nursing prof at UWMC) , I saw a sign, "NO is not a four letter word.". I have repeated it often, yet needed this reminder . Great writing!

Also seen, "'No' is a complete sentence!"

This article was so beautifully written and exactly what I needed to hear today. I love the way you've articulated the necessity and beauty of "no" - a true and powerful message that I rarely hear expressed. Thank you so much! Very much looking forward to your future articles.

Have you see this new book? The Best Yes.

I haven't read it yet...maybe a book club option :)

I wouldn't say balance is bullshit, that sounds like an overly hasty rationalization. I believe some more than others require "social sobriety" Does absorption have limits for you? Be it donuts, apples, or people. If not, why not? Good luck managing your extended family.

I had what I called my "year of no" a couple years ago, and it was so refreshing and liberating! I’d usually say something like, "I'd really love to but I'd better say no for now. I have a very busy [day/weekend/week] and I just can't fit it in. If it turns out I have more time than I thought, can I let you know later?” Once you develop the skill, it becomes easier.

I still find myself saying yes too often because it all sounds so fun (not because I don't want to disappoint anyone). But I have to remember that I need quiet time too, and having too much on my calendar really drains me. At work, my "no" practice saved me because I found myself doing way too many things because OTHER people said no. I finally realized I could be one of those people too!

'You say no so you can say yes.' see

Integrity and joy, very worthwhile. Post breast cancer I find rest to be essential and it has made me seek out more of what I want to do and who I really am. Pre BC, I had lots to do as a single parent after a divorce and working through chemo. No guilt here, learned with cancer support it is not your fault if you get cancer. Having said that it does bring life into focus and you have to fill up to be there for others. You also have to ask for others to meet your needs to. And that's ok. So setting boundaries maybe gives room for more time with others and some rest as well as for joy and integrity. But even on our best days we can get caught again in the worry and business, ok, just step back again and remember you are alive.


This is the power of renunciation.

Vernon Howard wrote a great little pocket book pamphlet entitled "No is a Complete Sentence." Best mantra wver

I have been struggling with trying to do too much for so many years now. I recently finished school and have been evaluating where I am coming from, where I am, and where I am heading in life. It's time to bid over commitment, constitutive distraction, and exhaustion goodbye. This was exactly what I needed to read and put into words I didn't have. Thank you.

I have been a church musician for sixteen years and I cannot agree more. However, I have trouble verbalizing to myself, much less to others, why more is not necessarily better. If anything, this article has given me pause to reflect more on my own feelings and experience. Thank you.

Thank you, Courtney, for this lovely meditation. So full of insight based on lived experience. I guess we all need to find the heart to prune. It definitely requires the long-term view! Getting lost in the immediate emotions is part of what makes saying no difficult. Stepping outside the present seems key...

Several years ago, my two daughters and I moved into a worn down cottage in a small town. Over the years, I have worked to beautify the grounds and regenerate the garden of perennials. I was particularly proud of two Shasta Daisy plants that had grown so enormous, they were more like bushes and less like charming cottage plants. I prided myself on the multitude of blooms that they produced. One year, I noticed that they were producing less buds than normal and one looked dull in color. It was dying. I had allowed it to grow so large without pruning it back and dividing it,that it was no longer able to sustain itself. Sadly that fall, I was forced to dig the entire plant up. I now have one left and I regularly prune it back divide it for others to enjoy and am enjoying a more beautiful Shasta Daisy "bush" than ever before. Our lives need pruning as well I order for us to be the most productive. Thanks for a wonderful reminder

Lovely and appreciated commentary. I'd like to add a few more thoughts. FOMO (thanks for that, BTW, it was new to me)can also be interpreted as selfish or indulgent: I don't want to miss ANYTHING, I want every experience possible, etc. It flies in the face of thoughtful limits to each of our lives. I have felt that knowing my limitations is at least as important as knowing what I'm good at. For many years I've used a simple 4 question "test" for making a decision about something:
1. Value: do I value this person and/or activity that is presented? (Sidebar: a problem for all of us, but particularly women in my experience. We value EVERYTHING, and usually as more important than ourselves; we aren't very good at knowing our values and accepting the need to reprioritize as circumstances warrant.)
2. Time: Do I have the time to make this commitment?
3. Energy: Do I have the energy for the commitment?
(4. Cost: Can I afford the commitment? I keep this in parentheses since money is not always a component.)
After I've answered these questions I apply my rule: it takes 4 yeses to say yes but only one no to say no.
Even St Paul says to give out of our surplus, not out of the basics we need to maintain ourselves. He also talks about giving from a loving, willing heart, not a resentful one. And if I'm detecting even the least amount of resentment in my heart, I know I've made a commitment out of "should, must, have to" and not "want to."If I don't have the time or energy, why would I commit to something that will overstress me, and may cause me to "punish" the other person because they "made" me feel guilty if I didn't? I have found guilt feelings to be a disguise for reluctance to consider myself equally important to the person making the request. (Loving my neighbor AS myself, not more, not less.) When I take the time to discern the current request, I find I can make a decision based on my available resources, and not on someone else's need I feel compelled to meet.
Thank you again for stimulating my thinking.

Thank you Karen. This is beautifully written medicine. I am learning this art of saying "no" and it comes with a mix of internal grace for having honored my own sense of integrity and the sting we avoid with our "yeses" for standing tall and not wavering with others, others who fear saying "no" and choose to waffle. We have to let go and be okay with what ever story others say to themselves to justify their co-dependence. THANK YOU.

Lord, make my unconscious yeses conscious, integrity and joy my priority.

This is beautiful and just reflects wonderfully what I keep hearing everywhere I go, you can't give what you don't have. By always saying yes to others you constantly are saying no to you. When you can't give to yourself, you become closed and resentful, which over time will kill you. It is sad that we can't always be and do everything for everyone but when you constantly say yes it leads to never being able to do anything for anyone(illness/death)and that is where we must focus "the big picture". No today can lead to many opportunities for yes in the future.

Balance is removing the fruit which can not be supported be the structure of the tree.

Wow. This is exactly what I needed to hear, as I have been struggling with this very problem on my own without realizing this is what it is. I have been bogged down in life, torn between what I should do, what I want to do, and what others want me to do. I have never been able to simply say no, even if to myself, when it is what is best. Yet in trudging through my commitments, I end up backing out, failing to finish what I said I would, hurting others, and, ultimately, failing myself. What I am finally starting to realize, and even more so after reading this, is that even though saying no might make many people unhappy, it is essential for one to be happy in life. Sometimes saying no is that very thing to get there. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

Wow. This is exactly what I needed to hear, as I have been struggling with this very problem on my own without realizing this is what it is. I have been bogged down in life, torn between what I should do, what I want to do, and what others want me to do. I have never been able to simply say no, even if to myself, when it is what is best. Yet in trudging through my commitments, I end up backing out, failing to finish what I said I would, hurting others, and, ultimately, failing myself. What I am finally starting to realize, and even more so after reading this, is that even though saying no might make many people unhappy, it is essential for one to be happy in life. Sometimes saying no is that very thing to get there. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

Boundary setting is essential at any age, to avoid being the victim.

Saying no to what isn't right for me is saying yes to what is right for me. Agree! The thing is, saying no takes skills and practice. Boundary setting can be bloody at first. But we learn. And we get better and better at this.

Very nicely written, I always learned that we say "no," so that we can embrace an even greater mystery more deeply.

This was a beautiful read and I really needed to read it, especially today. I do struggle with boundaries and often feel as though saying "no" means I've failed to meet some kind of cultural criterium for high standards in my work.

I recently read that the word "no", used in a healthy context, is a good test for a relationship, be it in business, or in life. Love and compassion will respect "no", and anything else will not - it will try to control it.

very effectively put. need to remind my self of this many times during the day till it becomes a discerning habit. Thanks!

My friend shared this post over on Google+, which is how I came to the site. I'm so glad I did. This could not be a more appropriate piece for me to read right now. And, I'm going to share this with my mother, who had a "mild" heart attack last week. She never learned to say no. I hope she will... Thanks for writing this, Courtney.

Great article.Looking forward to more wonderful insights of yours

I'm a pastor, and I have been reflecting on this concept as I prepare to preach on Jesus' words, "...Those who lose their life for my sake will find it." I have always interpreted this as, "Do more! Serve more! Do more for Christ!" But this week I am thinking that one of the hardest ways to "lose" my life is to back off from all those things I "need" to do. Instead of, "Do more for Christ," how about we "Do less, but do it with Christ." When was the last time you just sat still and did nothing - no reading, no catching up on emails, no nothing? Just sat there in the presence of God? My "life" is quite busy, with many appointments, running to and fro. Maybe Jesus' words mean to give up my "life" so that I can instead relish in Life.

(I love the pruning story - that will definitely make it into the sermon!)

I feel like this is far too common where I live. I have had many a person do this to me, where they will promise all sorts of things and either because of their own emotional shortcomings, anxieties, phony attitudes, or whatever, I end up looking like the fool thinking they would follow through on their word. Flakes of the world listen up: It's better to just say no if you don't think you can do something. It avoids people's feelings getting hurt, and you feeling and looking like an asshole. It helps you have a proactive, responsible relationship with the people around you, and I know it's hard when you have emotional issues, but is it worth alienating people in the long run? Just be honest. If you don't like someone, say so. If you can't make an appointment, say so. Just be real. Don't be fake.

that I can discern my most important priorities tool


Very powerful, honest, clear and to me also poetic!

"Should" is the greatest enemy of self love. "No" is its greatest friend.

great article...i was reading over Mary and Trent's discussion and realized ironically i have trouble with the word yes. "no" is not a problem... i would rather write or read than "do." oddly, reading your bio, Courtney, of all the things you're involved in, reading the reactions of folks in the reflection section...i'm going to try to say yes to a few things...i have integrity and joy, i even have balance---in my head. but i think i will try another "yes" .... but it's scary to think where it might lead me...scary to think what it might demand, what others might expect, how long the commitment may turn out to be... Mostly, though, thank you Mary for the Celtic blessing (it's also Native American in spirit---what you do to/for others you do to/for yourself; and Christian---do for others what you expect others to do for you), but i particularly like the Celtic slant to it in discerning "yes" or "now"... and for the insight into the serious and global issue of unreasonable and irrational expectation for women to be the "mule of everybody" (Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God"). It is abusive and insidious in that it is such a common expectation we don't often think about, not explicitly.

Brava to Courtney. If only I had taken said no more at work a year ago I would not have fallen into a state of exhaustion. The exhaustion culminated in a regrettable angry outburst. It was the wake up call for me to use that wonderful 2 letter word more often. Senior management is not happy about it but my work life is much more enjoyable.

Excellent reminder. Great writing. The paragraph about waking up in the middle of the night. This really hit home for me. "I realize I can’t faithfully execute. I write rambling emails backing out. I apologize sloppily under the moonlight, as if drunk on over-commitment. I hurt people. There’s no grace in it."

As if the universe has been listening in to my slowly suffocating soulself, gasping for enough time space or something. .too busy doing too much for too many, I had not air left with which to breathe... and suicide lurked in the cracks wherein light once came in. I wanted to stop and had forgotten that NO, I CANT DO THAT.THANK YOU FOR ASKING.

Having "the grace to acknowledge [my] own priorities" comes with putting my ego in its proper place: acknowledging that I cannot be all things to all people but I can be a faithful, disciplined and unique responder to the Divine invitations in my own heart.

Courtney, I just want to thank you for this. I think this relates really well to your piece on the unbearable weight of the world. There's so much for us to do, and to have a million passions is so rewarding, but at the end of the day, self-care is the only way we'll be able to take advantage of those passions. It's such a challenging lesson to learn, but this piece is helpful in me clarifying how I will be able to do so. Thank you infinitely! As a "none" that also experiences nothing but the fullness of life, I totally love & value your reflections.

Well said

Wow! Incredibly well put with stunning clarity. Saying no with purpose and without guilt so that we can say yes to our priorities. This also requires a great deal of self reflection and self-prioritization in terms of relationships and personal/professional goals. What a great assignment to reflect on for this week!


Karen Heiring, author of Writing to Wake the Soul (Simon & Schuster) says that "There are the yes's that lead to the no's. To say yes to this means to say no to the things that might prevent that first yes from happening."

my current situation not good for me. I need to learn this.

Digging a bit deeper (possibly all the way through to off-topic), accepting "No" is also something that's unrewarded (pretty much by definition). I'm hoping this trend will carry into the other side of this social equation. If we can become more gracious about hearing "no, " perhaps we can make a world, not just a self, more amenable to choices that support sanity and effectiveness.

I have yet to find a situation that has only one possible outcome.

Thank you I needed to hear that tonight as I just left a job from being overtaxed.

Beautiful...I needed that.

sorry, this just seems like one more justification for self-centeredness and narcissism.

There's a flip-side to this:

"Being wise selfish means taking a broader view and recognizing that our own long-term individual interest lies in the welfare of everyone. Being wise selfish means being compassionate."

If you're not healthy, or if you can't find a smile a few times a day, you're not able to meet anyone's needs.

Yes, the @$$#0|&$ who cut in just a few car lengths before the exit do slow the whole works down. It also creates a hostile driving environment. That's selfish. That's not saying, "No." A broken down car on the exit is just as bad, maybe worse; is pushing your car so hard (to accommodate the tailgater behind you) that it throws a rod (blows a gasket, whatever) the unselfish thing to do?

I think the author is getting at the voracity to be helpful. Sometimes the resources just aren't there. Knowing how to say "no" allows us to be more deliberate about when we do it.

I totally agree! I spent years (and sometimes fall under pressure) of saying yes to please people. I think I learnt it from family and also to make people happy. But then you ask yourself what about me? Who's making me happy? Why not myself? The last paragraph I relate to friendships as sometimes you feel you have to say yes to going out etc when really you want to say no, it is liberating when I do!

"If you don’t learn to say no, you use your energy in ways that don’t make you happy.
Thank God my mom, teachers, Girl Scout leaders, coaches and youth ministers didn't have this philosophy when I was growing up. I so benefited from their amazing service to the young girls of my community.

I need this same lesson. Thank you for sharing.

It was good to read this. Sometimes absolute knowledge (how many apples a branch will support)is available. Sometimes it is not. Consequences of actions may actually be (thankfully) unapparent. We do the the best we can. Gay Barfield reminded a group of us that peace begins inside each of us. When there is inward centered ness then there might also be a chance to manifest outward peace beyond ourselves. Thank you for your article. Peace

What is FOMO?
Age 58 with so many callings to paint,heal,help,enjoy,celebrate etc. would like to live a few more lives.

Also, why has Krista Tippett not interviewed the Rev. Becca Stevens of Magdalene House and Thistle Farms?

Love this!

Sentimentality still gets me because I want to do more than I am capable of with my health. I want to be more active in my church but I am learning that I have to pray about what I think I "should" do and face what I am able to do with Gods help.

Here is a beautifu, spiritual, reason to say no.
Not enough examples in real life, but the sentiment feels true.

I see balance, integrity and joy are all part of the same dynamic. There appears to be an idea that excess of anything is what brings joy.. perhaps it is not excess at all but a steady stream.. Joy is at your fingertips always- it is a choice if you have time for it and that is where balance comes in...