April 21 2016

Why Saying “No” Is So Important

By Mark Sisson
36 Comments

Why Saying No Is So Important FinalIn the health and fitness arena, taglines often sell the idea of “accept no limits.” After all, we’re supposed to believe in ourselves, push through boundaries, improve exponentially and show them all, right? Dramatic images, big numbers and extreme makeovers get the spotlight. And when people work hard for what they achieve, I think it’s great. My own primary focus on MDA is helping people live their best life with the least amount of pain, suffering and sacrifice possible. To that end, I offer ample positive advice for what to do. Inherent to the bigger picture, however, (and just as critical in my opinion) is the skill of discerning what not to do. Today I’m talking limits—and how knowing where to draw the line is essential to living an awesome life.

I know we all live in a culture of “more is better.” At various points of my life I’ve been tempted by that siren song. (I am a former Cardio King after all.) And yet the last few decades have affirmed a very different truth for myself and for others I’ve observed.

Because of the work I do, I meet a lot of people who are motivated to live a healthier life. It’s one of the things I love most about what I do in fact. And, yet, as a result I also see the full spectrum of behavior around “healthy” action.

Unfortunately, I watched people exercise their way into illness, ironically incapacitating themselves (or at least impairing their weight loss or fitness progress) because they couldn’t respect their bodies’ need for recovery. I’ve even seen others move from healthy eating into destructive orthorexic obsession. I’ve seen professional ambition consume people’s lives, and anxious parenting undermine the capacity for joy.

We reward and esteem those who relentlessly pursue self-improvement, but when does relentless become dysfunctionally desperate? It’s a sad image when what we think we want (or should want) ends up unraveling our chance for genuine balance and well-being.

Think of the times you’ve pushed yourself passed your limits in ways that ended up acting against your own best interest. You know—those times you’ve told yourself that you don’t “deserve” a treat, a break, etc., only to have that abstention come back to bite you. When have you denied yourself reasonable limits for the sake of “more is better”? When have you refused limits that would’ve given you needed sleep, solitude, rest, ease, peace, pleasure or sanity?

Think about the messages that play for you as you make decisions. What virtues are you attempting to uphold in your life, and when do you feel unnecessarily or excessively bound by them? When have you genuinely restricted your enjoyment of life because you can’t find any comfortable compromise in your principles?

Where has dedication become desperation, commitment become compulsion?

Maybe it’s in trying to be the perfect parent/partner/child/friend that we frequently wear ourselves out. Maybe we’re caught in a cycle of unwarranted restriction in our food choices that’s sucking any and all pleasure out of eating. Perhaps we routinely overdo it at the gym or have a hard time justifying relaxing because we always feel we can fit in “one more” walk or should be getting in “one more” set or “one more” hour of activity—only to continually wear ourselves out or leave no opportunity for other more restful and fulfilling activities. Maybe it’s finishing “one more” thing at work even though we know it will mean once again forgoing time with our families or time for ourselves. Perhaps it’s even never knowing when to stop obsessively reading about health and just trust we know what we’re doing.

In short, our lives become victims to the visions we have for them.

What would your life look like if you lived by the rhythm you genuinely feel best serves your mental and physical health? How many of us even know what that rhythm looks like? Do we have a sense of our ideal balance in life? Maybe we should spend as much time discerning our ideal limits as we do planning for our infinite expansion and self-improvement…

They say with age comes experience, and the fact is I’ve come to a finer and more honest awareness of my own human propensity toward excessive control. (Most of us, truth be told, have this in some sense or to some degree.) My resolve has indeed helped me achieve a great deal in life, but my ability to intuit natural limits has actually allowed me to enjoy my life and all I have.

The people I see who push themselves too far have excessive vision without a sense of proportion. It’s what happens, I think, when we abandon our self-attunement in the pursuit of principles. Frankly, when we refuse to have patience for ourselves and our process, it’s an act of self-sabotage (if not self-aggression).

I don’t say this lightly. We all deserve optimum well-being, but I’d also argue we can best attain it (and maintain it) when we foster a sense of informed intuition about our needs—balancing those admirable principles and ambitious goals with instinctual self-care. I’ve heard a friend describe it as living lightly, and that sounds about right.

So, let me open this up to you. What limits have you learned to set for yourself? And how have you learned where to draw those lines? What’s been the impact for your mental and physical health, not to mention other areas of life?

I look forward to reading your thoughts. Thanks for reading, everyone.

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36 thoughts on “Why Saying “No” Is So Important”

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  1. Oh, another timely post (how do you do that, Mark?!). I’ve been feeling crummy this week (busy, stressed, not sleeping well) and have been missing my usual workouts. On one hand, I think this is a break my body much needs and I think if I tried to squeeze in anything else this week I’ll lose my mind or end up catching a cold or worse, but on the other hand, I hate feeling like I’m not progressing and moving forward in my fitness goals. But I am going to just say “no” and stick with minimum workouts at least through the weekend until I can get some rest!

    1. wow what a handle “tired primal working mom”

      This works for me:
      take a week of rest
      I started doing it every 6 weeks, changed after a long time to 5 weeks and recently changed to every 4 weeks
      During the rest week I keep my foam rolling and if doing yoga I do it light

  2. Very very good

    This thing bite me in the past, several times:

    “Think of the times you’ve pushed yourself passed your limits in ways that ended up acting against your own best interest.”

    Not anymore. Now I look for the opportunity to “do less”

  3. Moderation is the key. Yes, I know… Moderation has gotten a bad rap lately because the word has been deemed ambiguous. The thing is, there isn’t any one-size-fits-all “moderation.” it has to be individualized in order to work.

    As an example, one health-oriented website preaches sitting for no more than an hour or two a day. Now, sitting long enough to grow cobwebs isn’t a good idea, but an ounce of common sense tells me that so much standing is extreme, impractical, and possibly downright uncomfortable for many of us. It would be for me, so I said “No.” It’s counterproductive to blindly follow what someone else suggests when the results are or could be detrimental, regardless of that person’s credentials. We all have to figure out what works best for us as individuals.

  4. Timely, indeed! Always a good reminder to slow things down, set limits, and know when to push and not to push.

  5. Good call, Mark! I know it can be difficult to say no, and the tricky part is knowing when it’s warranted or when it’s not. I’m sure once you start respecting/keeping aware your needs, it becomes more intuitively obvious.

  6. I definitely hear you on the obsessive eating front. There’s eating clean as a means to an end, and there’s disordered eating that results from using food as a means for control. Reigning it in/setting some “healthy” limits around being healthy can be helpful. 🙂

    1. Yes, so easy to ‘hide’ disordered eating with the cover of ‘healthy eating’ etc, etc

  7. I think I’ll take a break right now! Thanks for the inspiration, Mark.

  8. I used to work out with a trainer / gym owner who would say “less is more”. His specialty is sports performance training, has a degree in Kinesiology. I trusted his advice considerably more than the CrossFit trainer who gets certified after a couple of weekends of attending seminars and pushes people to do two hour workouts.

  9. I have learned to stop trying to please everybody. I say no to social obligations that are truly obligations, and spend my time with people that really matter to me. As far as food goes, maybe I am a little obsessive about the quality, but I can say that I truly enjoy eating high quality, well prepared food, and never feel deprived when I am saying no to crap. And totally agree with the “less is more” philosophy when it comes to working out!

    1. I “never feel deprived when I am saying no to crap.” What a game changer! I have never thought of it that way. So well put, thank you!!!

  10. Great post Mark! Interesting topic and thoughtfully presented as usual!

  11. I have a master’s degree in beating myself up for where “I am not.” More money, bigger title, better body, lifestyle… and the beat goes on. I’m going to dedicate the rest of the month to just being present and grateful. Peace out. 🙂

    1. I love the phrase “beating myself up for where I am not”. Totally resonates with me, not only with fitness, weight and diet (yes — they’re all three different things) but with work, life, breathing in and breathing out.

      Thanks Whitney. I’ll keep that in mind.

  12. YES, taking down time is necessary, but definitely something that is challenging for the chronic over-achiever in me….. I’m getting better at saying “no” when I know it’s right for me, even if other’s don’t understand my choice.

  13. Today I said no to working out, as yesterday I overtrained (an hour of lifting then in the evening went to go mountain biking, ended up doing intervals and progressive calesthnetic at the park). I said no to waiting for Saturday for a carb (once every week or two I go up to mainenence cals and 100+g carbs) Today I said no to intermittent fasting had buckwheat pancakes for lunch. Today I said no to not taking a break from packing stuff to giveaway, to get it to the charity before they close for the weekend, before I move. Today I sat down and read this post and said yes! Sometimes it’s just best to follow your gut and do what’s best for you holistically!

  14. I should print this article and post it on the bathroom walls where I work. There are a group of ‘young’ people that are driving me nuts. One gal in particular is very competitive. She needs to win every single Fit Bit challenge that we do. (Wouldn’t be so bad, but she cheats on top of it).
    This gal gets up in the morning, hits the gym – weights, cardio. Works out at noon either P90X, Insanity, Kickboxing, Cize – if she doesn’t do one of these every noon, she does throw in running/walking and yes she sometimes does a two a day at the gym on Saturday.
    On occasion her body gets mad and offers up a shin splint to slow her down.
    I do try to offer up a earnest jest or two about how do you ever find time? She does have 6 children. But it goes through the ears. I should try to slip in something about Mark’s Daily Apple next time something comes up.

  15. Over the course of my life, intuitively knowing when to say “no” to highly credentialed health professionals has spared me unneeded surgeries, dealing with the side effects of medications that ultimately I didn’t need, $$$ in orthodontia that I didn’t need, etc. Intuitively knowing when to say “yes” is what got me to this website and has kept me here!

  16. The problem is there are so many things I genuinely want to do! Rather than accepting that I don’t have time (which feels like a cop-out to me), I overschedule and then become stressed. I need to realize that I can’t simultaneously work full-time, pursue my master’s degree, practice Olympic lifting, meditate regularly, keep the house clean, improve my 5K time, train in Krav Maga, learn French, travel, train my dog in agility, practice bullseye shooting, try aerial silks, practice yoga, remodel my house, learn archery, work on my garden, read philosophy books, raise backyard chickens …. But I *want* to!

    1. Totally agreed here (except I am trying to learn Greek), but especially about dog agility training. It’s addicting, and tons of fun! Just last year I finished my oldest dogs agility championship. That was a high like no other.

      It seems there are never enough hours in the day. Take a few of those things at a time and work towards your goals. And never forget that having ambition and wanting to do many great things is much better than the kinds who mope their lives away, complaining about every little thing.

  17. I like what you’re getting at Mark and would want to add that, per our best rhythm, when you deserve that “treat” or break is not the day before you burn out, it’s every day so that you are able to balance work, goals, and self-care. Balancing every day with moments of respite and joy enable you to go for the long haul. Too often we view a treat or a break as something we have earned after pushing ourselves hard and, in that moment, we tend to pick the wrong kind of treat or drink, the kind that may have negative effects longterm but provides short term relief.
    Using myself as an example, a meditative yoga session is self-care. Having a glass of wine too many because I’m stressed is not.

  18. THANK you for this post! Having boundaries healthy enough in which saying “no” doesn’t make you feel like a complete ass is a huge stress reliever in itself.

    I’m in a position at work right now where saying “no” to new projects is becoming necessary. At first, saying “no” was accompanied by a cringe so huge that I practically would implode into myself; now, it’s getting easier. And saying “no” doesn’t mean you have to be snotty about it. If I can’t help someone out, I do what I’m capable of in order to find someone who can. Win, win, win.

  19. Timely article: just had to stop doing martial arts, because my muscles and joints started hurting all the time (I’m postmenopausal). While I was doing it I sometimes took painkillers to help with “sore muscles”… Loved it though, loved the feeling of pushing through, loved the compliments by my fellow martial artists, loved feeling strong and young (as long as I ignored the pain!) Ended up with an injury to my hip/lower back. Now I realize that I was sort of addicted and trying to keep up with impossible demands on my body thinking I had to fight all the time to be “worthy”… Then I said “NO” and the relief is just amazing! Still healing but fit nonetheless (low impact workouts), eating well, sleeping well and for the first time feeling genuine compassion with my body and myself, great!

  20. Over the years, I’ve learned to say No to excessive exercise–and No to long-distance running, in particular.

    Nowadays, I don’t run at all. For me, yoga brings balance where chronic cardio once brought imbalance.

    When I work with clients, I emphasize that the *right* balance between discipline and intuition is individual and dynamic, shifting over time (both in regards to eating and movement).

    I also talk a lot about tradeoffs–as in, there’s not one single way of doing something…but it’s good to be really honest and clear on what you’re doing and what results (or doesn’t result) from that.

    Want two “cheat meals” a week? Go for it–and without guilt. Just be clear that there may be tradeoffs (breaking through a weight-loss plateau, for example).

    Knowing when to say No to rules…or No to abandoning the rules is an ongoing exercise in honest, mindful exploration.

  21. A couple of weeks back MDA ran the post on simplifying your life – go back and find it if you missed it! – and one suggestion was to only go forward on ideas that provoke a “Hell, yeah!” response. It’s ‘Hell Yeah!’, or it’s ‘no’. I’ve been following this religiously lately; it’s been great.

  22. This concept comes up in every course that I teach – the importance of learning how to say ‘No’. It’s often in the context of mothers with young children trying to find a little time for a short yoga practice, and being unable to shut their bedroom door for fifteen minutes. The message to communicate is, ‘I’m available for you – but not right now. I need a little time for myself.’. I think this is important because it teaches the kids that Time On One’s Own (not necessarily Time for Oneself – there’s a difference) is important and something to be prioritised. Other than demonstrating that their parents are not their slaves, it teaches through example that one doesn’t need to be constantly entertained and distracted by people, stuff, noise, anything that wiggles, sparkles and squeaks. That a sense of wholeness is cultivated in a quiet and observant space. And that a calm household is a happy home.

  23. I get a lot of flack from my friends about it, but I’ve learned to say ‘no’ to staying up late. Sleep is so important to me and I feel terrible if I don’t get 9 hours a night, I go to bed around 8:30 every night. Yes this gets in the way of some social engagements, but it’s worth it not to be dragging through the next day.

    I once had a friend tell me, as a response to me declining a late night get-together because things were busy at work and staying up late would make me feel like crap, “oh, that’s no excuse – we’re all super stressed and feel terrible all the time.” Really? How about we all just stay home and take a nap.

  24. An insightful post this and on a subject I have been pondering recently after enduring a tricky year at home and work.

    We are frequently told that everyone is living longer because we are all healthier when reality is that its mainly down to “medical advances”. The biggest killer I believe in future years will be stress and illnesses, addictions & lifestyles that flourish in a stress laden environment.

    Talk to anyone of an older age and they will wax lyrical about how fun work used to be (particularly the baby boomer generation), they had time out, a social life, interaction and enjoyed the experience of life. Mortgages paid down reasonably early in life and financial independence.

    Fast forward to 2016 people are perpetually “connected” via technology from which there is no escape, working in environments which are nothing short of psychological warfare on a daily basis, up to their eyeballs in housing debt and on this desperate treadmill to keep up appearances and do everything.

    The problem is that we are all sucked into this way of life when in reality we do have a degree of choice on many aspects of it.

    I was at a Zoo last year and as I looked at the monkeys chattering away to each other and grooming each others fur in a family group I reflected on the humans around them glued to their touch screens and “present but elsewhere” to their families.

    I asked myself, if we have evolved over 1000’s of years how is it that through technology we are now devolving social skills and face to face interaction at a rapid rate.

    The monkeys seemed infinitely more civilised than the human beings watching them curiously from outside the cage!!!!

  25. Great point! I have difficulty putting the brakes on my working out and pushing myself. Thankfully, I have external limits (a commute which means I have a certain amount of time every day to get in my work), and I time my workouts. When I get home from work, I give myself a half hour to push myself really hard and then I relax for the evening. I give myself every Friday off to just enjoy my wife’s company (and even this can feel like I’m not working hard enough) on Saturday and Sunday, I’ll get one workout in, but after that I allow myself to say that I’ve done my hard work for the day. Often, I’ll switch up workouts on the weekend to give myself variety.

  26. I have been going through a lot of changes in my life as of late. Recovery from a divorce, moving, new job, making new friends,and trying to maintain fitness, and eating habits. It’s the getting enough rest that I lack. Sometimes I get into over reach on one,or more items, but as of late rest is lacking. Now I am suffering from inflation of the inter ear, causing vertigo. This sucks, should have laid out in the sun, instead of going for that hike, and a workout.
    Boy, did I lean a lesson. I didn’t read this post till I was sick.