Learning how to say no: employment and setting boundaries

Entering employment whilst balancing other commitments is definitely a challenge. Over the years, it has taken time for me to adjust and find my feet in the workplace, especially when it comes to learning when to say yes, or no.

Learning how to say no: employment and setting boundaries

Being self-sufficient, earning your own money and generally entering adulthood can be a daunting process. Your very first paycheck, and knowing “I earned that.” However big or small, I remember that adrenaline clearly.

When we think of work, we think of the money we get out of it but do we take enough time to consider what it actually means to be part of a workplace. School, I suppose, is there to prepare us all for a performance of professionalism. How do we conduct ourselves amongst other adults to be liked or seen as doing a good job? As young people start out, how do we differentiate between what is being treated “right” or “wrong” in the workplace? I just knew that I had to comply with everything, no questions asked.

When I was 16, I suppose the highlights on a Friday afternoon were going to Enfield town with my friend Rowan, with only £5 to spend. The question hanging over us wasn't any more than “shall we go for a Starbucks or a Subway”. The days where £5 notes were visible, and we actually valued money. Nowadays, we simply tap without asking the prices. As I got older, and started to work and earn money, the ability to buy both on our Friday nights felt like the highest high. 

Money was never at home. It was inconsistent and unpredictable, to say the least, but. it built a foundation of value for money. When you’re 16, however, you still have that comfort blanket, that title of being a “minor”. It felt safe, but when everyone around you is thinking about getting part-time jobs, you feel like time is ticking. Rowan and I add handing out CV’s to our Friday nights.  It was still our fun Fridays, just with a lingering feeling of adulthood. If I am honest, I was not entirely sure what I had written down on my CV, which led to a lot of play-acting, smiling and nodding when asked questions in interviews. The white lies and slightly exaggerated stories I thought would give me a push could have gone either way. 

My First Job at Matalan

Something went right because I had landed my first ever job interview at Matalan in Edmonton. It may not be the high-class business office that I wanted, but I was so excited. Even the concept of having a routine and saying to other people, “I have work”, gave me such a buzz. At the time, I lived in Edmonton, so even walking to work really gave me joy. Nervously, I walked into the store, and I believe I was wearing a black blazer, to give me an edge. Seeing the staff all in the same uniform reminded me that if I got the job, I would have a Matatlan T-Shirt of my very own; how exciting. 

I was greeted by the manager, Teresa, who led me upstairs through multiple doors with complicated-looking codes, giving us access to each one. She turned to me and said, “don't worry, we will tell you the codes for each one if successful”, with a light chuckle after. Even the idea of knowing secret codes to access different areas of the workplace made me feel like I would have status. 

We sat down, two of them on one side and me on the other, in the little interview room. It was nothing more than a white canvas room - boring. All I could hear in my head was “first impressions”, so I kept smiling. I remember bits of paper that they held close to them, as if they were incredibly valuable and them asking me questions. There were a lot of “why’s” in each question that they asked. I am pretty sure that I used a lot of hand gestures to be a more energised and animated version of myself. 

Things seemed positive. They were nodding their heads and smiling at every response. My heart was full, and I knew they approved. By the end, they were matching the same smile that I was giving them. We were on the same page, and before I knew it, I got the job. I can now buy Starbucks and a Subway, potentially even pay for Rowans too. The next step to freedom. 

The first shift. I was full of adrenaline and had this image of me behind the till, talking to customers and socializing, smiling and feeling productive. They put me in the men’s department. I was consumed with men’s jeans stacked up, with the flies undone. I had to fold them and put them back. Suddenly, working for that paycheck seemed a little underwhelming. I kept smiling, but finding my place in this new environment was challenging. There were whispers in the other aisles, where other workers were having chit-chat. I wanted to get involved, but I hadn’t earned my place yet. I was keeping to myself. 

My value at £4.50 Per/Hour

Well, that took a 360 turn. My manager knew I was young, maybe thought I had nothing better to do with my time. She asked me if I could work more hours. I kept saying yes when I wanted to say no. I felt obliged, pressured to say yes when I needed to say no. I just wanted to please. I didn’t want to be the “difficult one”. It is two letters, no, and why was it so hard. What was the worst that could happen? 

I kept elongating my breaks. Taking pictures in the toilet was the highlight. Three weeks into the job, and I am withdrawn from it completely and utterly done. I remember my last shift because I had told myself, this will be your last shift - you are not facing another shift once this one is done for the day. I was stacking up the socks and smiling to myself, knowing that I would not face another dreaded day in the Matalan store. Instead of telling my manager, I got my mum to call them, informing them of my decision. I look back at that now and smile at my infantile behaviour, but I was just scared at the time. I had never really had an authority figure aside from the ones at school, and they had to allow for the “young mistakes”. 

A few days later, I bumped into my manager at the bus stop. We made flippant eye contact, and I ran away. I felt so silly, but I just felt too embarrassed. It is like this “working image” was too daunting, and I regressed to an even younger version of me than before. I just wasn't able, didn't know how to communicate in a workplace. We need to learn how to be assertive and vocal in school, so that “no” doesn't seem like the end of the world. This goes for other contexts too. Whether it be sexually, personally, professionally, or emotionally, it is okay to say no.

Finding my feet

It wasn't until I worked a new job a few years later, at age 18, when I was facing events that gave me no choice but to say no at times. Shofar Daycare Nursery was my new venture in this professional world. This was a new dynamic, working with children, having responsibility for others, real responsibility. I felt like a young mother for the day. While I was facing personal grief at the time, immersing myself into a busy workplace with children kept me in the moment. It felt like a safe place. Maybe I was hiding, deflecting from what I should have been doing for my mental health, but I insisted that this was my way of coping. Let’s keep busy and nub the real thoughts. I kept smiling through it all, but my manager could tell I was tired, facing external events that I was running from. I felt like a working woman who learned how to separate personal life from work life, just like you would with your own child. Days, months and years went by and I kept up a pretty spirited performance. 

It caught up with me though. I should have said no, I need time off. I was drained, but the avoidance carried on. One day, I was 5 minutes late for work, and I couldn't inform them as my phone had died. This was the moment where all of that pent up anxiety and need to perform perfectly came crashing down. The measured exterior was cracking at the seams, and I just burst into tears when I entered the building. I was greeted with a hug, with such warmth, and I could not believe the reception. If I had thought about my relationship with my mental health, maybe I would have said no, just maybe.

Finding balance

We go into adulthood without a dose of reality. It is hard to imagine what it would actually be like, being accountable, responsible and self-sufficient. At school, where we can afford to make mistakes and have a rather soft landing when things go wrong, we don't see the world for what it is. The working world is so much broader than sitting and focusing on your lessons. Outside of the school bubble, challenges revolving around communication in the workplace, and just in general, seem to be the most reoccurring. At school, lessons seemed to be muted, and communication wasn’t organic. 

Now, in the real world, how do we learn when to say yes, and when to say no? I would say that my relationship with “no” has gone up and down, but has grown pretty nicely. Finding your personal boundaries takes time and a lot of reflection, which isn't always a pretty process. From running away from confrontation at Matalan to avoiding any days off at my nursery job, I wasn’t putting my mental health first - but we must. Taking time to sit and process things is not a waste of time, even if it looks outwardly unproductive. It wasn't until my grief was overbearing and my image cracked that I had to say “no”. “Yes” was no longer an obligatory word to use. I wasn't compelled to perform anymore. I just needed to recharge.

If we can collectively teach young people in schools the importance of saying no, we can build a generation of far better communicators. It does not need to be deemed a rebellious word but advocated to promote self-care and boundaries. Again, this is important in the workplace, but as young people grow, it is essential to use it in other contexts too. Familiarising young people with it early on will remove the fear of needing or wanting to say no. In doing this, society will be a far clearer space to work in, and young people entering the world of adulthood will go into it without blinkers on, and “no” will be used in an assertive and confident manner. 

Header Image Credit: energepic.com


Milli-Rose Rubin

Milli-Rose Rubin

Currently studying Music at Goldsmiths University
Studying Therapy at Manor House
I create music, and work in the youth work sector, and run creative workshops/Music therapy

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