Mind your mind: The importance of being assertive and saying no

A few weeks ago, I had to confront my boss in order to request time off work. I worried about my boss’s reaction. What if he said no and refused? What if I got fired? What if he pressured me until I agreed to keep working five days a week? Although my manager did none of these things and reacted in an appropriate and professional manner, a little voice inside my head spent a lot of time trying to convince me otherwise.

Practicing being assertive is not easy, but it’s necessary when it comes to cultivating healthy relationships, especially the one we have with ourselves. Setting clear boundaries, for instance, keeps you out of resentment and allows more space for compassion. The reality is that people will always ask more from us — more of our time, energy, even expertise. The danger is that when we’re bombarded by countless demands and high expectations, and feel obligated to say yes. It can often leave us appearing sweeter on the outside, but way more enraged and bitter on the inside. Being assertive is a vital skill to have because when we say yes automatically without checking in with ourselves, it can do some serious damage to our self-worth.

It’s important to understand that learning how to say no takes practice, especially if it’s not something we’re used to. On more than one occasion, I've gone out with friends and when I was the only one who wanted to be home by midnight, I lacked the courage to stand up for myself, sacrificing my own needs by staying out until 3 a.m. instead. I suffered through a lot of parties and boring shifts at work because I wanted to earn someone else’s approval.

Why do we constantly feel the need to justify our behaviour when we don’t owe anybody an explanation for our decisions?

I think the answer is fear. I’ve come to realize that we get so caught up by our fear of rejection that we make up lame excuses, become overly apologetic or tell white lies to avoid spotting disappointment on other people’s faces. Instead of being brave and respecting our limits, we say yes, then pray for the flu so we can cancel plans made with friends or call in sick to work. We want safety and familiarity, so we opt for being liked by our peers, family, friends or significant other, all in the name of approval and fitting in. Sometimes, that can lead to other people walking all over us and treating us like shit. Then we often resolve to find someone to blame for our misery. But the real question is who’s to be held responsible? Most of the time, it’s us.

Setting clear boundaries and respecting our limits as well as communicating our needs is a matter of cultivating self-love. It can be hard to advocate for ourselves, but the good news is that we get the opportunity to practice and improve everyday. Being firm and persistent requires consistent time and effort, but I think that believing in our rights, speaking up and doing the best we can under the circumstances is truly a rewarding process.