I still struggle not to feel guilty when I say no. Yet at 40, I now care much less about what people think. I wear my hair in shoulder-length dreads and write without censoring myself. If I stopped to think about what the critics will say when I sit down at my computer, I'd have perpetual writer's block.

Part of me will probably always want to be seen as the nice girl, the one everyone gets along with. But the difference between the woman I was and the woman I am now is my strong sense of who I am—and everything I choose to do flows from that place. I make my own music and sing my own songs. And if people listen, I'm happy; and if they don't, I can live with that. Never again will I want another person's approval so desperately that I will be willing to give up myself.

Say "No" more often:

Knowing who you are is the key to saying no. But if you're having trouble getting the word no out of your mouth, try these strategies from Connie Hatch, co-author of the new book How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty.

1. Keep it simple: Resist the urge to overexplain. Simple responses such as "Sorry, I can't this time" or "I'm afraid I'm busy that day" are most effective. The more details you offer, the more there will be to argue about. The other person may try to change your mind or decide that your excuse isn't good enough. ("You mean cleaning out your closets is more important than I am?")

2. When in doubt, buy time: There's no law saying you must always answer at-that moment. Say a co-worker asks you to head up the fund-raising drive for a-company-sponsored charity. Tell her,-"Let me think about it, and I'll get back to you." Then consider the best way to say no.

3. Expand your definition of "I have plans": Many women feel they can't turn down an invitation unless they have another engagement on the calendar. But if you've scheduled downtime for yourself, that is an engagement. So don't be afraid to say, "Sorry, I have plans."

4. Make it a policy: Make your no sound less personal by referring to a rule you have about the thing being asked. For example: "Sorry, but I have a policy about never lending my car" or "I make it a rule never to date people I work with." Such a response carries less sting-because it says no to a practice, not to an individual.

5. Remember that behind every "No" is a "Yes": You're sure you don't want to work 11-hour days or baby-sit your neighbor's Rottweiler. But do you know what you want to do instead?

Every time you say no to a less-than-appealing request, you say yes to something else. Maybe it's one golden hour to take a bubble bath, read a good book or play with your kids. Saying no frees you to pursue a dream—to take a class and develop your potential, or to work for a cause you believe in. The more time you can give to the things you truly care about, the more satisfying your life will feel.

More ways to take control:


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