Saying No for a Better Life

I’m such a hypocrite! I know, I know… Just last week I was all, “say yes to pretty much everything in life, including kidnappers with quality candy in the back of their vans.” But life is full of contradictions, so thanks for yin-yanging with me here while I extol the virtues of Big Fat No’s.

The only thing harder than saying yes to opportunities and excursions and comfort-zone-busting-activities is saying No to things that just might push you to the brink of burn out and exhaustion.

There is a reason that Saint Brené (you know—Brené Brown—patron Saint of Recovering Perfectionists and People-Pleasers) apparently practices saying no while she hangs around the house doing random things like housework. (While I can’t picture Brené sweeping Doritos crumbs off her kitchen floor, it doesn’t make this little anecdote any less true.) Brené has been said to have practice-run conversations with herself where she politely but unapologetically declines invitations to barbecues, opportunities to speak on panels, offers to be on podcasts, canonization requests from the Catholic church, etc. Saying no isn’t easy, and if the world’s biggest expert in having courageous conversations has to rehearse her no thank you’s, then doesn’t it make the rest of us feel better?

Many of us don’t like saying no because we are bona fide people-pleasers. Pleasing others can be lovely when we have this tendency in check, but it gets disastrous when it leads us to believe our self-worth is contingent on whether we have appropriately pleased the many Masters in our lives (bosses, partners, kids, parent teacher association leaders, neighbors, friends, relatives, board members, colleagues, that guy who asks for money outside CVS, and pretty much anyone with a heartbeat—including animals).

6 examples I have heard in the last month of things clients have said yes to when they’d really rather have said no:

  • Staying late to help Ralph in marketing figure out the market research data (because his lack of planning was apparently my client’s emergency)
  • Agreeing to fly home for the holidays (even though my client wasn’t really in a cushy-cash position to pay for the bazonkers-expensive flight)
  • Accepting every meeting invite at work, to the detriment of my client’s calendar
  • Helping a friend move, again
  • Joining a committee on a volunteer board (because no one else raised their hand)
  • Making pastitsio (the most meticulously-arranged pasta dish of all time) for an ungrateful sibling who made a special request for it and then said it was too salty
  • Passively agreeing to watch the action flick (instead of the movie my client would have preferred)

Many of us are more interested in meeting other people‘s needs than our own, which 173% of the time—according to my latest research—leaves us with the bitter taste of resentment. The story rarely ends well when we consistently say yes to others and sacrifice our own needs … like how one of Hemingway’s characters responded when asked how they went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually then suddenly.” Like bankruptcy, divorce, and muffin top, the over-yessing burnout builds slowly at first and then bubbles up seemingly all of a sudden.

So how do we channel our inner Nancy Reagan’s and just say no?

How do we say no without compromising our identities as kind and generous people who like to help? How do we say no without ruining our careers? Oh, how we jump to conclusions, don’t we? We assume we’ll be labelled as assholes if we don’t volunteer to chair the fundraising committee. We assume we’ll be labelled as lazy and disengaged if we tell our boss that we don’t have the bandwidth to take on that extra project. I get it, because I have wrestled with those same irrational fears and while I haven’t fully eradicated the Pleaser voice of judgment in my head, I have successfully tranquilized it.

Most of us know by now how to say no (the internet is littered with tips and tricks on this, and I’m not here to reiterate all that you can read on Forbes). (Okay fine: be polite but clear with your no; show empathy without overkilling an apology; offer an alternative solution when possible; enter the witness protection program if you must skip town.) Yeah, you know what to do. We all know what to do, we just don’t want to use the skills.

Adopting the No Mindset

Usually we have to insert the It’s Okay to Say No Mindset Chip into our brains before we can fathom (*gasp!*) disappointing people. And that is the disappointing truth about saying no: we will probably disappoint people. Usually it’s just a little bit, and rarely it’s a lot bit. But we must believe it’s worth it to gently let someone else down, because we are in pursuit of something that’s more important. We are looking out for our well-being.

Reframe what saying No actually means.

Usually when we want to say no, it’s because we want to say a bigger yes to something else. Saying no to that late-night report, for example, means you’re saying yes to spending precious time with your kids/ going on a hot date/ working on starting your side gig/ getting some sleep for a change/ making a new bowl with your pottery wheel/ WHATEVER IT IS YOU’RE VALUING AT THAT TIME. Celebrate that something else matters and choose to double-down on your commitment to that.

My client might have disappointed Ralph when he asked her to work OT to help with his spreadsheet. Ralph would have lived, and my client would have preserved her evening self-care routine that she valued so much.

My other client might have disappointed her family to say, “I can’t make Thanksgiving this year, but next year I’ll be there with bells on!” Her mother would have moaned and groaned about it (apparently her mother would have moaned and groaned even if she’d have committed to the trip), but she would have lived … and my client would have saved $1,250 and planned a delicious little turkey retreat of her own.

Overdosed on YessesOver the next 14 days of your life (two Mondays!), I challenge you to say No, one time. One no. Stick up for your own needs. You’re not going to be a dick about it and you’re not going to get fired. (People-pleasers usually have gobs of credit stored up in the Pleasing bank anyways, so they can afford to make a few withdrawals.) What will you say no to (other than this challenge)?

Jodi Wellman

P.S.: I really think we should connect on Instagram!

P.P.S.: Oh and just in case you missed it… I’d love you forever if you took 16 minutes out of your life to watch my TEDx talk!


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