How I finally learnt to say no at work


Rachel Kurzyp

"Like most young people, I was determined to fit in and be liked - so I spent my days walking on eggshells and saying ...

"Like most young people, I was determined to fit in and be liked - so I spent my days walking on eggshells and saying 'whatever you want to do is fine by me'." Photo: Stocksy

What would you do if your manager yelled at you in front of your colleagues because you couldn't stay past five o'clock? Would you sit back down, turn your computer on and cancel your plans? Or would you tell them nicely you had places to be and would get to the project first thing tomorrow?

I faced this dilemma a few weeks ago, and it wasn't the first time I'd been yelled at by a manager at work. I've lost count of how many times I've been dumped on and pushed around over the years. I used to believe I was a people pleaser (like that was a good thing) but, if I'm honest with myself, I was a pushover.

Like most young people, I was determined to fit in and be liked - so I spent my days walking on eggshells and saying "whatever you want to do is fine by me". I said yes to everything. I would say yes to staying late at the office to finish urgent tasks. I'd say yes to additional shifts, even when I had plans. I'd even say yes when random projects were assigned to me during team meetings, while everyone else pretended they were busy.

And I wasn't just a pushover at the office, I was a pushover in my personal life too. I'd say yes to my boyfriend when he asked me to buy him more beer, even when it was dark outside and I had to walk alone. I'd say yes when my teammate asked me to finish her share of the assignment because she broke up with her boyfriend and was too sad to study, the night before it was due.


I thought if I said yes I would get a pay rise or promotion. My boyfriend would appreciate me more. I'd get a good mark and people would return the favour. But none of this ever happened. Why?

Because no one respects a pushover.

People respect someone who knows their limits. Who set boundaries. Who know who they are as people.

That's why when my boss recently asked me to stay back, I said no. I stayed calm during her meltdown, collected my things, left the office and went and enjoyed my other engagement. Friends asked if I was shaken up, the situation had been confronting, but I wasn't. Instead, I felt empowered and strangely content.

I thought this is what it must feel like when you stand up for yourself. I'd never experienced this feeling before. I was used to a tight, queasy feeling in my stomach like someone was wringing out my intestines. I had begun to feel like this every time a person asked me to do something for them. I'd always known I wasn't meant to feel this way, but I had ignored it. I wasn't going to ignore it anymore.

When I returned to work the next day, my boss ignored me. It was clear she wasn't impressed with my decision to leave at five o'clock. I knew I had to make a decision, so over the next few days I took some time to process what had happened and what I needed to do next.

First, I recognised and acknowledge my feelings around my job. I realised my work situation was making me incredibly stressed and anxious because I had no control over my work day. Second, I had to determine how my boundaries were being crossed. For me, it felt like my colleagues weren't respecting my time. Tasks were being sent to me whenever it suited others, putting an unfair burden on me to complete work within unmanageable timeframes. And third, I overcame my fear of acknowledging a boundary needed to be set. Then I was able to take my next step, which was to speak up and let my manager know.

When she finally agreed to a face-to-face meeting, I was confident we could smooth things over but she gave me the take it or leave it talk. The final part of the process was when I went home feeling mixed emotions - angry, down and deflated – and didn't beat myself up about it. I knew I'd done the right thing but it was clear she wasn't willing to accept how I felt, let alone change anything.

But I refused to keep being a pushover.

That's why the decision to quit my job a week later was an easy one. Friends comforted me when I told the story, but I wasn't sad. The whole ordeal was actually a blessing, because it taught me to start saying no and setting boundaries. And it helped me create a process for dealing with future situations like this one. I only wish I had stood up for myself, and made decisions that allowed me to live the life I want, sooner.

Rachel Kurzyp is a Melbourne-based writer and communications consultant with a focus on human rights and digital inclusion.