When to Say No

I recently joked with a friend that I need to create an email auto-responder that says:

To my family, friends, clients, and colleagues:

Thank you for your message. I love you dearly, but am currently underwater with self-imposed deadlines, client work, and other obligations. Please note that I am not currently accepting unpaid work or any projects that otherwise demand my time and energy without monetary compensation. I will respond to your message as soon as I can summon the mental and emotional fortitude to reply.


There’s truth behind every joke: learning to say ‘no’ to things that don’t serve me has been a lifelong challenge, and self-employment has amplified the issue. My fellow freelancers and self-employed compatriots would probably agree that the dynamics of our work are fundamentally different from being an employee, and I’m still adjusting to this new mindset over a year into this adventure.

I’ve written about vulnerability and about my Enneagram Type 2 tendencies (I’m also an Obliger, according to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework), so it makes sense that I struggle with boundaries, asserting myself, and saying ‘no’ to things that don’t serve me. Defining and enforcing boundaries is crucial to becoming an effective business owner (and something that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough!)

How does a serial helper learn to stop helping everyone else and start helping themselves?

What’s the best way to start saying ‘no’ when your default is ‘yes’?

I’ve learned a lot in the 18 months since my last corporate job: about business, about creativity, and about myself. Being a good problem-solver is, in my view, the best quality to have as an entrepreneur, so in the interest of finding solutions to problems, here are a few ways you can help support freelancers and small business owners in our shared mission to do great work:

  • Understand that a ‘no’ is usually synonymous with “I care and want the best for you, but this can’t be a priority for me at this time”

  • Don’t ask for free or discounted work or services 

  • Know that small business owners and freelancers are always working, even when they’re not “working”

  • Help with non-monetary boosts: sharing and engaging on social media, opening and forwarding emails, and word of mouth

Being an effective writer involves being a good editor: saying ‘no’ to words and ideas is just as important a skill as choosing the specific words and phrases to represent a person or a business. It’s good practice for filtering out things that don’t matter or are of low value so it becomes easier to recognize the things that are an emphatic yes.

As a helper and creative, I view my work as part-writer, part-hypewoman: I love being able to frame others’ experiences through a story arc and write my clients into a narrative worthy of their talents. There is nothing more gratifying to me than writing something for a client that gets them where they want to be and gets them saying “YES!” to their mission — and to themselves.

(The image for this post is a page from Belong: Find Your People, Create Community & Live a More Connected Life by Radha Agrawal, a beautifully written and illustrated book about how to forge meaningful relationships and build a community of like-hearted people. This particular section dissects ‘words’ versus ‘language’ and got me thinking differently about the relationship between the two: I highly recommend this one as a quick, immersive, uplifting read!)

Liz Feezor