In my chronic quest for acceptance from others, I have often tried to be socially correct. My default definition of this was to say “yes” when I really meant–and should have said–“no”. To add more to my plate, if I thought it would make someone happy or satisfy them or earn their (temporary) approval or prove to them (and myself) how competent or reliable or agreeable I was. To people-please. To give in, when I really felt like giving out. To…put someone else’s needs above mine, maybe because I hadn’t even defined mine yet, and they had. Or maybe they had defined their needs better than I had mine. Or they were more assertive about theirs than I was about mine.
Does it matter, really? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I found myself in a situation in which I no longer had the capacity to say “yes” to everything and everyone. Try as I might, there simply weren’t enough hours in a day. An intense and predetermined school schedule spoke for the bulk of those hours, followed by variable-but-frequent home-based self-employment, and perhaps enough time after that to eke out some study time before I essentially passed out from exhaustion at the kitchen table, on top of my books.
Weekends were out, too; I spent most of my time studying after the much-needed sleeping in. And I reserved a sliver of time at night for recovery from everything.
Suddenly, I could not fulfill every request made of me. I could not accommodate every desire. I could not agree to every commitment asked of me.
Suddenly, I had to start saying “no”.
Saying “yes” had been almost automatic. Saying “no” felt very foreign. Almost like someone else was using my voice to speak. It was not a well-exercised word. It did not come up readily in my brain’s auto-suggest feature.
But I had no choice but to familiarize myself with the word. Doing so meant getting through school, in one piece.
At first, it was scary. I had long equated saying “yes” with gaining approval and acceptance. I had associated it with being agreeable, socially interact-able, making friends, being connected, being successful. I thought that people liked me for my “yes”s, and I figured that my (perceived) flexibility and agreeability formed the keystone, the bedrock of being given the time of day. They were my ticket to ride, because they were the only social attributes I had nailed down. Or at least, the illusion thereof. But in a world where mind-reading is not (yet) possible, illusions count. If you can pull it off, you’re in.
That doesn’t mean I ever (or would ever) use that knowledge to manipulate or otherwise harm others, of course. I was never that good at feigning anything, nor would my internal compass ever agree to point in any such direction. I wasn’t Malificent from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty”; I was more like Merriweather, the shorter, stouter, crankier-but-goodhearted of the 3 Good Fairies. I might grumble, but I would wave my magic wand and try to make people’s wishes come true, just the same. And I always tried to use these abilities for positive things.
Having to say “no”, on the other hand, led me into some fairly untested waters. If saying “yes” was everything good that it was, then saying “no” was just the opposite. That goes without saying, but it was often frightening to connect the dots and consider the potential ramifications. Saying “no” could be construed as anti-sociability, disagreeability, oppositional defiance. If people liked people who did things for them and I could no longer realistically do that (at least for a while), then that had uneasy and unpleasant implications for me.
Meh, I took the plunge.
At first, I did so out of necessity. It felt unnatural and aloof. But what do you do when you have no choice? There were only so many hours in a day, and school was as legitimate an “out” as any.
I started with two groups of people: those closest to me and those on the outer perimeter. I figured that they might be the most understanding and forgiving, and if, despite my best efforts, I angered or disappointed them, I could try to beg forgiveness ASAP. As for those who reside in my outermost social layer, I reasoned that if I put them off by my “no”-saying, and they drifted away as a result, then the impact to my fragile self-worth would likely be minimal.
I started to say no. I tried to be as gentle and diplomatic as possible.
And I braced myself for impact.
The impact never hit. I was so sure that it was going to rattle my core and shake my foundation, but it didn’t.
People responded with: “I understand; you’re busy! No problem.”
And they stuck by my side anyway, while giving me the distance and the leeway to pursue my obligations. And when those obligations lifted and drifted away, those people were still there.
This was invigorating for me. It’s not that I suddenly derived joy out of rejecting the requests of my loved ones. But it felt healthy and solid to suddenly start caring for myself. And it felt comforting and reassuring to know that those I cared for most stood with me.
Now, I’ve taken this Just Say No modus operandi to a whole new level, one that is both semi-comical and seriously beneficial.
I learned to prioritize–to accommodate requests by those who are important to me (even if my response timetable is slow!), and to let everything else fall by the wayside. (Just a note to those of you reading this to whom I’ve said “yes” to a request or to whom I’ve extended an open invite or offer, I really do intend to make good on that. That’s the beauty of this whole thing–now that I’ve become choosier about what and who I say “yes” to, my “yes”s actually mean something. When I do say “yes” or express interest or commit to something these days, I mean it.)
My saying “no” when needed feels good, and it can even be fun (!). I’ll give a few examples…
No, I don’t want to go out today.
No, I’m not going to put up with that kind of disrespect.
No, dear partner, if I’m driving, then I don’t want to leave right now; let’s wait until rush hour traffic lightens up first.
No, website, I don’t want to “download your app”.
No, I don’t want to sign up for your newsletter right now.
No, I don’t want to take this advertising survey.
No, I don’t want to pester my fellow Facebook peeps by “poking” them back.
No, dear patient, I’m not going to look up that supplement you found from that guru, when I’ve already put an obscene amount of time into gathering information on several similar-but-superior versions of that supplement.
No, I can’t see that (non-emergency) person today.
No, Apple, I’m not going to update my OS beyond my hardware’s capacity. (Apple should–and does–know better.)
No, I’m not going to agree to meet with that salesperson.
No, I’m not going to watch those commercials/ads.
No, I’m not going to stand for that injustice.
No, I’m not going to sign up for that class, if it’s not beneficial or relevant to me.
No, I’m not going to buy that item. And if I do, then no, I’m not going to fall for that “extended warranty” racket.
No, I’m not going to “take advantage” of that one-day sale.
No, Amazon, I’m not going to buy the other (full-price) book being advertised along with the one I’m already buying.
No, I’m not going to stay late and do that extra work if I’m already tired to desperately craving Me Time.
No, I’m not going to sign up for that service.
No, I’m not going to make that extra stop or run that extra errand (especially if it was sprung on me at the last minute).
See? Saying “no”, when needed, can be awesome.
There’s a lot of mental health and stress relief to be gained from avoiding certain traps and setting oneself free. It’s actually healthy to be a little “obstinate” or “oppositional” sometimes. I’ve realized that it’s OK for me to put my foot down.
I’ve learned that “no” is an answer, and it’s a valid choice.
I’ve begun to reject the idea that just because someone (or some entity) acts like my compliance is important (and even urgent), that doesn’t make it so.
There is indeed a certain amount of risk in saying “no”. It depends on what and who I’m saying it to, and how important they are to me. If I care for them deeply, then I try to say “yes” as often as I can. But those who are worth the time and energy investments will also tend to be the most understanding…
…which makes me want to tell them “yes” all the more.
And by saying “no” to the rest, I have more time and energy to do exactly that. 🙂