Saying “No” to Create the Space to Say “Yes”

When you ask someone how they are, 95% of the time they will answer with some version of “busy”, “good, but busy” or even, sometimes, “crazy busy”.

Busy has become a badge of honour, a signifier of success – a humble brag that sometimes implies we are important and in demand. But if you really are “too busy”, chances are, you are not saying no enough.

Many of us struggle to say no, fearing rejection, anger or just the uncertainty of what the other person’s response will be. Our people-pleasing is often rooted in childhood. We might have been raised to be a good girl or boy, praised for being “mummy’s little helper”, or we might not have been given enough attention, and so sought it by pleasing others, even at the expense of ourselves.

We can get so used to saying yes and pleasing others that we don’t even know what we want, or what our needs are. But if your life is so tightly packed with other people’s requests that you don’t have time for what really matters to you – or worse, your mental health is at risk – it is time to make a change.

Out of guilt or fear of confrontation, we take on more projects, invest in someone else’s priorities . . . In the process, we dissipate our most valuable personal resources—time, energy, and money—on things that aren’t important to us. Each time we agree to something without enthusiasm for interest, we waste a little more of these precious resources.

Patti Breitman and Connie Hatch, How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty

Let’s see 3 of the common reasons many of us have a hard time saying “no” and ways we can work with these patterns.

  1. People-pleasing: Well-behaved and compliant children can sometimes grow up into people-pleasing adults. It sounds like a good thing; after all, ‘pleasing’ is a positive word. We grow to experience that saying ‘yes’ makes people happy. The problem with this is that we are often ignoring our own needs in the process. Your own needs matter just as much as anyone else, and if you factor your wants and needs into each decision with equal gravity, you’ll find ‘no’ gets a little easier to say.
  2. Filling the role of ‘rescuer’: Being reliable, jumping in when needed, and being a problem solver are positive traits. But again, loving and caring for those around us, and even helping them, shouldn’t always be at our own expense. Triage requests, along with managing your own needs. How is your self-care going? When was the last time you had fun or spent time doing something you loved? As above, you matter too. Make sure to put your own priorities into the mix as much are you are caring for others. 
  3. Being manipulated: Not everyone has your best interest at heart. Unfortunately, some people (even friends or relatives) are experts at laying on the guilt, telling their sob story, or steam-rolling over good-hearted people. Pay attention to how you feel when being asked (or pressured) into something. Are they holding their affection ransom? Are they threatening a negative consequence if you don’t agree? Did they imply you don’t care about them at all when you tried to say, no? Trust your gut. It really can be, and is, your decision. 

A ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ is irrelevant if it is the wrong opportunity.

Jim Collins, Good to Great

The issue I have found is that it is impossible to say “no” to opportunities if I don’t know what I truly want? Like most people, I’ll be seduced by the best thing that comes around or one of the modes of operation above. I’ll crumble under other people’s agendas and lose myself.

In order to know what is right for me, I need to make space to slow down and withdraw from the everything that is pulling at me to listen to my inner self.

Here are some helpful tips for saying NO:

  • Don’t lie. Lying will most likely lead to guilt—and remember, this is what you are trying to avoid feeling.
  • Don’t say “I’ll think about it” if you don’t want to do it. This will prolong the situation and make you feel even more stressed. Unburden and disentangle yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. 
  • Be direct, such as “no, I can’t” or “no, I don’t want to.”
  • Don’t apologize and give all sorts of reasons. Keep it simple. 
  • Remember that it is better to say no now than be resentful later. This will only damage the relationship in the long run. 
  • You can still be polite and say, “no.” You can say something like: “Thanks for asking.” or I appreciate you thinking of me for this opportunity.” 
  • Practice saying no. Imagine a scenario and then practice saying no either by yourself or with a friend. This will get you feeling a lot more comfortable with saying no.
  • Remember that your self-worth does not depend on how much you do for other people.

When we are over-committed in our life, we won’t be able to say yes to the important things.

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