Sure, hot vax summer sounds fun. But saying no might be the most powerful thing you do this summer.
Britney Spears is done. Serena Williams is a pass. Naomi Osaka would rather not. And despite coming from a tradition of stiff upper lips, Prince Harry won’t hold his tongue.
In the past month, these celebrities have taken tremendous risks to say no. Spears gave a shocking speech opposing her 13-year-long conservatorship, a legal arrangement that’s led to deep depression and kept the mom of two from having another child. Williams turned down the Olympics without explaining why. (The tennis great previously suggested that official regulations prohibiting overseas attendees, and thus athletes’ children, would factor into her decision since she always travels with her daughter, Olympia.) Osaka declined to compete at Wimbledon in order to spend time with friends and family, a decision that came weeks after she cited the emotional toll of participating in press conferences as the reason for her exit from the French Open. And, in his Apple TV+ series The Me You Can’t See, Prince Harry spoke defiantly about surrendering his royal duties when he realized his mental health would suffer if he remained an active part of the British monarchy.
This series of refusals is more than just celebrity spectacle or scandal. Look past the clicks and TV cameras and you will see something universal. After a year of unthinkable sacrifice, many people understand themselves and their priorities like never before. They’re willing to unequivocally say no, setting boundaries that previously felt impossible. If the fantasy of our post-pandemic lives was the hot vax summer, consider a revolutionary alternative: the summer of saying no.
The last year has proven how little of our lives we control. Yet research tells us how much humans need control, or at least to feel a sense of it. Losing it can make us feel helpless, stressed, anxious, and depressed. Saying no is one way to restore the balance, a way to claw back freedom. If there’s one season that lets us dream of liberation, it’s summer. Warmth and light invite us to explore, bringing us closer to the horizon. Staring into the distance, everything feels possible. We gather outside with friends and family to share laughter and food. Unlike cloistered winter holiday celebrations, connecting with others during the long daylight hours of summer brings a jolt of energy. Let no be a bulwark against the forces that might steal back what you’ve reclaimed.
So, for the next few months, as you try to put the COVID-19 pandemic in the past, say yes only when you genuinely mean it. Let no be a bulwark against the forces that might steal back what you’ve reclaimed. If you feel rising anger and exhaustion, it’s likely because you’re trying to resist something or someone who wants more than you can give. Think of the boss who expects you to show up for work while sick. The friend who invites you to an intimate dinner with several unvaccinated guests. The relative who makes underhanded comments about who you’re dating or when you’ll have kids. The list of things worth rejecting is laughably long.
All those potential noes — or the yeses we utter regretfully — pile up because we worry about damaging relationships or fear the change that will follow. But it’s possible to say no without being cruel by giving yourself and others grace. This is the compassionate gesture that acknowledges our complex humanity. Tell the therapist you’d like to fire that it’s time for you to move on. Break up with a partner who doesn’t see who you really are, but remember that we all fail the people we love at some point in our lives. Absent physical or emotional abuse in a relationship, such disappointments are a product of our human flaws, and we’re all capable of inflicting them on someone else.
When it’s an unhealthy habit you need to abandon, skip the shame. Berating yourself isn’t accountability. Honestly taking stock of your choices and making different decisions is motivating. Repeating the same self-criticism you’ve heard countless times before undermines your best efforts to change. If you want to quit doom scrolling, incorporate bursts of play instead. Vow not to fat-shame yourself or someone else, but do try to understand the complicated reasons people gain weight and have trouble losing it.
People who aspire to say no more often will likely confront an ugly truth: America doesn’t make it easy to draw the line. While her case is complicated, Britney Spears is a living example. Stalked by paparazzi to the point of emotional collapse, then placed in conservatorship for years, Spears said in her speech that she’s been discouraged from speaking out by her lawyer. The pressure to wear a permanent smile despite enduring daily trauma while also living up to financial expectations to underwrite her family’s and employees’ livelihoods kept Spears silent for years. At some point, the facade cracked. Now she’s willing to defy a system of power that’s kept her confined for more than a decade.
For the average person, it’s hard to be assertive when navigating the tightrope walk that is gaining a foothold in the American economy. Few people have real leverage in the workplace, which makes it difficult or unfeasible to say no to abusive conditions. Just 11 percent of workers belong to a union, a steep decline from the early 1980s when 20 percent of employees could collectively bargain. Paid time off, whether it’s vacation, sick, or parental leave, is a luxury, since the federal government doesn’t provide or mandate those benefits. Without universal health care, many are bound to misery-making jobs. They can’t quit because they’d lose their health insurance.
But some people are done putting themselves on the line for jobs that don’t value their worth and humanity. Take, for example, the workers who won’t return to their old jobs after the pandemic because they’d rather seek positions with employers that offer decent wages and benefits. This is what a summer of no can look like for those who can afford the risk.
That brings us to another harsh reality. Many Americans’ voices are hoarse from saying no again and again, whether they’re protesting racism, LGBTQ discrimination, immigration policy, or climate change. And the stakes of standing resolute are far higher for some people, by virtue of the way society treats and demeans their identities. For an undocumented immigrant who doesn’t want to work in a slaughterhouse during a COVID-19 outbreak, declining to show up may not be an option.
These inequities actually make saying no that much more important for those who have less to lose. If you have the privilege of resisting, wield it against systems that instill fear in others. Maybe that means shopping on Amazon less frequently, supporting Asian Americans who are targeted by violence or opposing laws that discriminate against trans youth. Setting and holding boundaries to protect our own mental health and well-being can and should include acting in ways that benefit people who can’t make the same choices.
Sometimes no is a wrecking ball. Sometimes it is a quiet meditation. However you use it, let this be the summer you learned to protect what you hold dear and help build a world in which saying no is simply normal.