Finding the “YES!” of Answering “NO”

One early January afternoon, I made the courageous and unusual decision to answer a call from an unknown number. I immediately regretted the impulsive choice when I realized the woman on the other end of the line was calling with hopes of recruiting me to take on a volunteer fundraising position I was not interested in pursuing. I deeply wished I’d let it go to voicemail so I could have returned the call with a rehearsed, reasonable excuse for why I wasn’t the woman for the job…or, perhaps more likely, casually ignored it all together in hopes it would go away.

As a stay-at-home mother with both children in school, I do have the freedom to structure my days the way I choose to. So, for years if I was asked and could make an unexpected endeavor work, I agreed to it regardless of whether or not it was a project I felt qualified, or compelled to take on. This particular day must have landed just close enough to New Year’s resolutions, though. As I listened to her pitch, my mind immediately flashed to an image I’d cut and pasted right at the top of my most recent vision board: “I’m already booked.”

When considering my goals and aspirations for the year, I’d realized the ways in which unnecessary obligations had been cutting into my creative time. My highest personal priority for the year was investing more into the brand I was longing to build. I promised myself that after family, I would put my writing first. But those commitments- the ones that require accountability to no one but ourselves- are often the toughest to uphold. For a second, it felt more important to avoid the feelings of guilt I might have over declining to serve than to nurture my own needs and dreams. But the words, “I’m already booked” rang louder than the inner voice that was suggesting I had no right to risk disappointing someone else for the sake of my best interests. 

I inhaled deeply, thanked her for considering me worthy of the role, and responded with a timid, “no”. I held my breath waiting for the fallout. I’d chosen myself, stood my ground, refused self-sacrifice, declared my time, said “no” without excuse. Who did I think I was? Surely the world was about to end. Right before I began to back pedal, apologize for being so completely out of line and accept the offer, I was shocked to hear her thanking me. Instead of an emotional beating about my self-centeredness, she sounded impressed and grateful. She explained that my assuredness in saying “no” without explanation reminded her it was okay to refuse what isn’t fulfilling, and freed her up to do so more often in the future.

Her acceptance and appreciation of my ability to decline encouraged me to continue the practice of prioritization. It’s become an act of self-care that I find works best when coupled with a strong measure of self-assurance. Intentionally reflecting on my needs and honoring them does not come naturally, but I’m always glad when I do. And I’ve found when I pass on opportunities, I don’t care to devote myself to, they tend to move on without me for the better. To show up lacking passion for what I’ve committed to only brings negative energy into a cause someone else would be better suited for. My “no” creates space for someone else’s “hell yes”. 

For women, the weight of expectation to be polite and keep life running smoothly for others is heavy. But, I’ve learned that defining my limits is not rude. Allowing myself room to breathe in order to bring the best version of myself to aspects of life I’m fully committed to is an act of kindness to myself and the people around me. What serves me well, will better serve those I care most about. And on a really successful day, perhaps our strength in saying “no” might empower another woman to create more space in her own life to receive the calls she’s excited to answer with a hard “yes”.


 Ellie Norris in her kitchen, sitting on the kitchen counter.

Ellie Norris

Ellie Norris is a mother of two from Collierville, Tennessee. She writes to empower, entertain and inspire creativity through authentically relatable stories of motherhood and identity. Follow @ellienorris.writer on Instagram for more of her work.

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