We’re constantly told to say yes to things. That there’s power in saying the word “yes” and seizing opportunities. Which is great, but what about when we really need to say “no”? Should you apologise profusely for doing so? Should you give reasons? Should you not say no at all?

Not according to this expert.

“’No’ is a full sentence,” insists Gauteng-based Psychologist, Colleen Johnson who is speaking at the upcoming SACAP Festival of Learning. She has worked with parents, siblings and families, adult abuse survivors and self-esteem groups, as well as leaders, employees and team members across a wide spectrum of corporate and business fields.

"When we care more about pleasing others than we do about our own needs, we are not virtuous, unfortunate martyrs. Instead, we are the powerful creators of the out-of-whack fields where toxic relationships flourish."

Colleen explains that an inability to say appropriately “no” to a boss or colleagues; to a partner, friend or child, is not an indication of their pushiness or systemic dominance over us, but of our fundamental failure to set the boundaries that denote proper self-care.  

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When we care more about pleasing others than we do about our own needs, we are not virtuous, unfortunate martyrs. Instead, we are the powerful creators of the out-of-whack fields where toxic relationships flourish.

It happens because of us, not ‘them’. The journey to being willing and able to use ‘no’ as a full sentence is therefore one of heightened personal awareness and important consciousness of self and others.

“Our fundamental worth in life is based on what we think of ourselves!” Colleen says. “Unfortunately, this is not the message we receive growing up. We are actively taught to prioritise what others might think of us and adjust ourselves accordingly. That’s how our boundaries get set by others instead of ourselves; and those others may well be exploitative. We try to conform to the needs of others and to what we perceive we need to be in order to be deemed acceptable.  

“Setting boundaries can be difficult but is such an important part of having healthy relationships and an overall sense of well-being. "

“In the process, we lose a vital sense of self so that we end up as adults who don’t know how to say “no” even when we do know well we are too tired; or we say “yes” to be in community when we know we really need some time alone to recharge. We may take on work that our team members are actually responsible for; or put our life goals aside to help our partner achieve theirs. We may model for our children a sense of helplessness that leads to their ‘failure to launch’ and an idea of entitlement that could trip them up for life.”

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In all aspects of our lives we need to know where we begin and end in relationship to others.  This can be trickier than it sounds.  “Setting boundaries across your relationships gives the message that I respect myself; I respect you; and I expect you to respect me too,” Colleen explains.  “People are encouraged to know themselves; to take responsibility for their behaviour; to know what their triggers are; and to learn to set limits as far as relationships are concerned. When you value and respect yourself; people will value and respect you – because, ultimately, people treat you the way you allow them to treat you.” 

"Having good boundaries also enables you to experience less stress and to follow your life’s passion and purpose.”

But Colleen isn’t the only expert who thinks saying no is a good idea. Jennifer Rollin, a mental health therapist, intuitive eating counselor, and blogger wrote an article for HuffPost back in 2016 about learning to say no. In it, she gives tips on how to set healthy boundaries for yourself and others and says: “Setting boundaries can be difficult but is such an important part of having healthy relationships and an overall sense of well-being. It’s helpful to remember that when you say “no” to things, it frees up your time to focus on the pursuits that truly energize and excite you. Having good boundaries also enables you to experience less stress and to follow your life’s passion and purpose.”

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And if that isn’t enough to convince you to start saying “no” more often, then there’s also this book called The Power of No: Because One Little Word Can Bring Health, Abundance, and Happiness. Written by James Altucher and Claudia Azula Altucher, they draw on their own stories as well as that of students and readers to clearly show you that saying “no” to anything that is hurting you is a great way to make place for saying “yes” to the right things. 

So, learn to say no. Learn to put yourself first and practice self-care and stop trying to do all the things when you only have the capacity to take of yourself. Learn that saying “no” is okay and that you have the right to say it and not feel guilty. 

Colleen Johnson will be presenting her talk, ‘No! is a full sentence’ at the upcoming 7th annual Festival of Learning which will be held in Johannesburg on 17th and 18th of May, and in Cape Town on 24th and 25th of May 2018.  

Tickets for the 2018 Festival of Learning are available through Webtickets.  Costs are R200 for the full-day programme which includes dialogues and panel and R200 for the short talk evening, which includes catering and networking opportunities. There is a special offer for students at R80 per ticket.

For further information visit http://go.sacap.edu.za/psychology-festival