I’m waking up to the power of saying no.
As women, we’re taught to say yes, take care of others, and do what needs to be done—even if it doesn’t align with what we want for ourselves. If we can break through that conditioning and advocate for ourselves by saying no, we’re engaging in a revolutionary, empowering act. I’m practicing this in my business.
The first few years of running a business were all about the yes’s for me. I said yes to every client and project, and once in the relationship, I continued to say yes even if I didn’t want to be doing what they were asking of me. I learned very early on that I didn’t want to be writing social media posts, but when I got into a working relationship with a client and they needed some social content, I found myself creating it. “They need it and I can do it,” I’d rationalize.
This is a two-way street, and I’ll absolutely acknowledge my own role in this outcome: I didn’t have the courage to hold a firm boundary.
A few years into running my business, I was aware of my people-pleasing, yes-saying tendencies and tried to stand on firmer ground. This is when I found myself working for a client who actively pushed back.
The company was a startup priding itself on impact. I’d been hired to write blogs, primarily community success stories. I was excited to have heartfelt interviews and talk about real change for real people, to deal in the educational and inspirational. That kind of honest storytelling is what I’m best at and what I value most.
Shortly after I was hired, the company brought on a new marketing manager. I was to work under her. She was, in a word, intense. She practiced few boundaries, valued the workaholic ethos, and was constantly coming up with “the house is on fire” problems that needed to be solved immediately. As a freelancer and not an employee, I made it clear early on that I was not available to drop everything at a moment’s notice and address her needs. I did my best to build out processes that allowed time for correcting the inevitable mistake. Even so, that kind of calm mentality was simply not in her DNA. For her, success equated to being stressed and running a million miles a minute, so that’s what she did. She was a high-ranking employee and encouraged the same of the people around her.
Several months into working for the company, the marketing manager found a two-day SEO workshop taught by someone who came highly recommended. She asked if I wanted to attend alongside a company employee, suggesting this would be a great way for me to expand my skillset into SEO writing. The company would even reimburse me for the cost of the workshop. I wasn’t particularly interested in writing SEO-driven copy (I was more drawn to storytelling), but she was encouraging me and offering to pay, and there was a dynamic there that didn’t exactly leave me feeling empowered. I was a freelancer rather than an employee, but the way she treated me blurred the line. I felt pressured (and if I’m being honest, confused). I agreed and signed up.
The workshop taught me the ins and outs of technical SEO writing, the tools, keyword research, and upkeep necessary to write a high-ranking blog. I started implementing what I’d learned into my work with the company. I didn’t enjoy it, but it needed to be done, and now I had the baseline training needed to do the work. I couldn’t argue that I didn’t know how.
After a while, I took stock and realized the work I was doing no longer resembled what I’d signed on for. I was doing a deep dive into SEO keyword research tools and strategies. The writing was an afterthought, and the subject matter was nothing like what I thought it would be. It was technical rather than human-centered. Even though it hadn’t been a conscious choice, I felt like I had somehow consented to this shift, so for a while I said nothing. It didn’t feel valid to say, “I don’t want to do this.” The work needed to be done and I had the know-how, so how could I possibly turn it down? What right did I have?
I started resenting the startup and every minute I spent working for them. Even getting an email from someone sent my stomach sinking or pissed me off. I wanted to quit. I knew my time was limited, but I thought I could try a last-ditch effort at reshaping my roles and responsibilities. Maybe I could still shift things back to what I’d originally been hired to do. After all, I was a freelancer. Getting to determine my own scope is part of the deal.
During a meeting with the marketing manager, I tried to pivot the conversation to articulate what I wanted to be doing. She kept coming back to what the company needed—an SEO writer. After a certain point, it felt like she was having a conversation with herself. She justified to both of us that I was doing what I wanted to be doing by saying, “I mean, you’re obviously interested in SEO writing. You took a two-day SEO workshop for goodness’ sake.”
Ummm...what’s that now?
I blinked and stared blankly. Taking that workshop hadn’t really felt like my choice, but now it was being used as evidence of my interests. Stronger evidence than me speaking up about what I wanted to be doing.
Looking back, I see that she’d been grooming me from the start to fill in the gaps of what the company needed. My own preferences hadn’t factored in at all.
This was the final straw. I wanted to drop the client—preferably right that second—but I was terrified. The money was good and it was consistent work. It was steady, reliable. Everything a client “should” be.
And yet, I had started working for myself so I could do what I wanted to do. There was no room for what I wanted in this dynamic.
I looked at the calendar and made an exit strategy. I had personal relationships at the company and was afraid of being honest as to why I was leaving, so I made up a reason I could no longer work for them and gave the date I’d need to be done.
The day I gave my notice, two other projects that were much better aligned cropped up. Now I had space to say yes to them.
I learned a lot from this client experience.
I learned to watch carefully what people ask of you, and after you establish a boundary, look even more closely at what they do with it.
I learned that when someone tells you what you want rather than asking, they don’t really care about what you want.
I learned that saying no to what doesn’t fit opens up space to say yes to the good stuff.
The kind of manipulation I experienced in that client relationship was subtle, nearly invisible. Almost like it was all in my head. When I reflect on the dynamic, I’ll sometimes get caught in a loop of all the things I could have said or done differently. But then I remind myself that I wasn’t the only one in the room. Yes, I could have advocated for myself more strongly...and she could have been more respectful of what I was saying. I could have flat out refused to do the things I didn’t want to do...and she could have heard me the first time I said I didn’t want to do them.
This is where our people-pleasing conditioning can turn insidious. If we say yes all the time, we also say yes to being manipulated.
I see so many parallels between this situation and dangerous people who take advantage in a romantic context. We can teach young girls to look out for each other at the bar...and we can teach men* to be respectful. We can teach women and girls and trans and non-binary people to throw a solid punch…and we can teach men that we don’t owe them a goddamn thing.
Leaving this client gave me the first intoxicating taste of what it means to say no. It’s expanded into both my personal and professional life, and I’m doing my best to steadily peel back those layers of conditioning that tell me “no” is the dirtiest word I can say.
When I say no to work I don’t want to do, I’m really saying:
I’m committed to doing what I’m passionate about.
I’m committed to a future in which my needs are met.
I’m more committed to doing what I want than to filling a gap in your needs.
In other words:
I’m more committed to myself than to you.
That last one still feels prickly to articulate—it goes against so much of what I’ve been taught. But at the end of the day, I’d much rather disappoint a client than myself. Think about it: If I choose to constantly disappoint myself in favor of someone else's needs, how can I possibly create the life I want?
And from the perspective of the company, don’t you want someone fulfilling a job that they’re great at and they love doing? Do you really want someone doing something half-assed out of obligation over someone who is eager to improve?
When we say no to what doesn’t serve us, we’re also saying yes to the opportunities that fill us up. We’re allowing space for all the projects and clients that beautifully align, giving both us and our clients an opportunity for a blissfully compatible working relationship.
What fills us up will continue to change as we grow and learn. The things we said yes to once are not a contract for life. We have the right to change our minds and alter what we’re committing to. And if someone tries to call us on that, it’s not an indication that we should back down. It’s an indication that they’re trying to take advantage of us.
Again, there’s a parallel to romantic relationships. Even if you said yes to fooling around at one point, you have the right to say no at any point after that and be heard.
Saying yes once does not mean “yes forever.”
Strengthen your no’s my friends. Reinforce them with steel. If someone tries to twist your no into a yes, they probably don’t have your best interest in mind—and that’s your cue to leave. Because if we don’t advocate for what we really want, who will?
*I realize not 100% of sexual assault or manipulation occur at the hands of a man—it’s closer to 99%. I’m generalizing for clarity.