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The Simplest Way to Learn How to Say "NO"

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

Are you that “yes person” who can barely pronounce no? Are you glued to the treadmill of overcommitment? Here's a fun fact. Yes, people typically have a zest for life. They crave experience. They love helping just as much as they hate letting someone down. But when our default is set to yes, oftentimes we end up putting a time squeeze on the things that can truly make us thrive.

Research shows that when we align our behaviors with our values, we are more likely to flourish, and get to the “good life”—the term positive psychologists use to describe a life characterized by mindful presence, connection, and impact.

You’re probably wondering, why is it so hard to set boundaries?

Oftentimes, it signifies a deeper value set. If you’re the type that always wants to be there for people you care about, it’s because you value relationships. If you’re the one at work who says yes to every project, it reflects how much you value learning. But when we only say yes, we might be missing chances to invest our time and energy in ways that help us take our values and goals to new levels.

There are a lot of reasons why people consistently say yes to everything.

One is FOMO, the fear of missing out.

The thought of missing any kind of opportunity for growth, fun, recognition or something that leads to a feel-good result catapults you into a sea of over-commitment and perpetual quest for experience. FOMO reflects a desire for excitement, mobility, connection, and adventure. On a healthy day, this can help you learn and engage in dynamic ways. Operating in the extreme can lead to constant chaos and little time to be more selective and intentional in your activities and how they relate to your long-term goals.

Another reason is perfectionism.

You’d rather eat the stress than let someone else down. You want to bring your absolute best to everyone and everything you set out to do. You believe that saying no might be a sign of weakness or a moral failing. Or maybe you think that someone will dislike you if you say no. On a healthy day, your conscientiousness serves you well. It helps you stay focused and striving for excellence. When you take it too far, you become obsessed with performance and end up with a high sensitivity to mistakes and feedback that is anything but glowing. This can lead you to impulsively say yes to please people and redeem and/or prove yourself.

Then there is social conditioning.

As women, our identities are often tied up in how much we’re doing for people. Particularly because we have long been in positions where “emotional labor,” the work of nurturing and tending to people’s emotions, is expected and demanded of us.

Some researchers have called this the “third shift,” the part of life that requires us to write out the holiday cards, make sure no one forgets the aunt who lives alone, and that everyone is using their Sonicare toothbrushes. We’ve long held the seat as relationship managers, orchestrators of all things holiday, and holding space for everyone whenever they need it. Double whammy for cultures and communities emphasizing such norms of self-sacrifice. If you are in a position of pressure to over-perform because of gender, cultural or religious norms, work to self-advocate and distribute the work in a more fair and equitable way. It is nearly impossible for anyone to stay healthy if they are required to say yes without respite.

So, this begs the question, how do we get out of these cycles of constant “yes’s”? It’s about honoring yourself and honoring your “yes’s” and your “no’s” so you can focus on what gives you energy instead of what depletes it.

Sometimes what can deplete us most is simply over-committing ourselves or saying yes to the wrong things. Many of us want to help those around us, or are simply really good at many tasks, and we find ourselves saying yes simply because we know we can do it.

It is great to want to help others out, but we also have to check to see whether we are chronically saying yes to other people’s agendas without making much forward movement on our own.

Let me ask you this. Do you tend to say “yes” to a lot of requests from others or do you have a healthy “no” practice currently in place that honors what you want and need to nourish yourself?

A lot of the time when someone makes a request, we automatically respond with a “yes” and then try to figure out how we can manage it with what is already on our plate.

Make a list of your top five priorities, write them down and refer to them every time a request comes in and you're tempted to default to a yes. Doing this will allow you to get to a place where we pause in between their request and our response. During this pause, you will be able to assess your top five priorities and to determine whether their request helps move you towards them or away from them.

Here’s why. When we say “yes” to something, we are saying “no” to something else. However, the counter is also true. When we say “no” to something, we create the space to say “yes” to something else.

Do yourself a favor this week. Write down your top five priorities and then go through your calendar and mark which activities support your top five, as well as the ones that don’t. Those that don’t support your top priorities, commit to cancelling them in the next 24 hours.

As you do this exercise, keep three things in mind:

First, does the activity give you energy or deplete it?

If you’re feeling up to it—whenever you are entering into an activity or interaction that you usually dread—keep a stretch goal in mind and see how you can switch your mind-set to that of it bringing you joy.

Viktor Frankl, said it best, “The last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.

In any situation you find yourself in this week, see how you can bring a more joyous disposition.

Second, practice pausing after each new request and consider whether this moves you closer to or further away from your top five priorities.

And lastly, every Sunday, scan your week for previously scheduled activities and see which, if any, can be removed if they are not serving your top five priorities or add in activities that give you energy.

Give it a try and let me know how you do in my Say Goodbye to Your Inner Mean Girl Facebook group where women like you and I inspire and lift each other up. Share a post about how you’re honoring your yes’s and no’s this week.

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