The Art of Saying No

Originally Published November 21, 2010

by Meghan Kaul

If the idea of fitting some meditation or “alone time” into your schedule sounds like someone’s idea of a joke, you may need to learn the art of saying no.

We all have responsibilities: at work, with family, and with friends.  While some people have the problem of not owning up to some of these, many of us take on far more than our fair share.

Some people are so busy helping others and attending to their needs that they have all but forgotten about their own.  Their schedules are so busy, they can only run breathlessly from one task to the next.  Personal needs come dead last, if they are attended to at all.  This cannot go on forever, and for these people, the next time they get “me” time is when they’ve come down with the flu…or a much more serious illness.

Why do we do this?  There are several reasons.  For some, they like to feel like the hero.  They are proud of all that they do and cheerfully take on more.  Occasionally, this can turn into martyrdom as these people begin reminding others of their sacrifices as they start to resent it.

For others, they hear of another’s difficulty and truly want to help, finding it very difficult to deny them this help.  This is a wonderful inclination, but it often is not kept in balance with personal needs.  For these people, putting themselves first, even occasionally, is extremely difficult.

Sadly, it is very difficult to convince these people to put themselves first, even occasionally.  They really feel terrible denying help to anyone even one single time.  They give and give of themselves, sometimes until they can’t anymore.  Eventually, a breaking point comes, the inevitability of which is also hard to convince them of.  They believe they can keep going like that forever, yet this is not the case.

For some of us, we don’t trust others to do certain tasks.  We know it won’t be done right, or it won’t be done the way we like it if we aren’t the ones to do it.  In this case, one needs to let go.  We need to be ok with less-than-perfect, as this perfectionism can drive us crazy.

How do we say no and free up some of our precious time?

Firstly, if you are a person who feels guilty saying no, focus on healing that once and for all.  This may be the most powerful thing you do for your health in your entire life.  You can’t be everything for everybody, nor should you be!  Why should another person be allowed to enjoy you as a personal assistant when you don’t get one for yourself?  It simply is not fair that anyone take on a disproportionate burden.

Secondly, recognize that no one who is asking you a favor would ask if they knew how these favors added up and made your life a 3-ring circus.  Your friends, family, and co-workers do not want you running ragged without time to take care of yourself.  By simply being honest and truthful about your true ability to help, you will do them a service as well as yourself.

If you are afraid that without your help, a friend or co-worker will be put in a bad situation, it’s time to notice that they need to come up with a permanent plan to solve their daily dilemmas.  How many times have you bailed out the same people?  You bailing them out is not an appropriate long-term plan.  If anything, it does them a disservice because they are not learning to solve their own problems and balance their own schedule.

When we take on a certain workload which has been given to us by another, we guarantee this happening again in the future.  Who is going to realize they need to hire more help, find a baby-sitter after all, or make their own pie for Thanksgiving when we say yes every single time?  When we say yes over and over, others become dependent on us.  They never organize their lives or businesses fairly and properly because they have discovered they can put the extra stuff on you.

When you say no a few times, your boss may hire another administrative assistant, at last!  That “friend” of yours who drains you with every conversation will finally get that you are too busy to get together all the time.  You have set a new boundary.

How to say it?  This is the hardest part, of course.  Yet if we want to own our own lives, we simply must learn how to do it.

Let’s say you are feeling obligated to attend social events which you don’t want to go to.  There’s a million things you would rather be doing.  You know if you say no, your friend they’ll throw a mini-fit over it.  The point it, so what?  So they throw one of their mini-fits.  Don’t let it get to you!  Don’t feel guilty!  The next part is very simple: you tell the truth.

“I’ve been really strained lately.  I’m exhausted and need a night to just relax.  I’m dying to just sit at home tonight with a good book.  This is something I need to do for myself, and I am actually working hard right now to do MORE for myself.  I’m sure you support me in making sure I take care of myself.”

No friend can hassle you after this.  It’s the truth, it’s simple, and it is completely fair.  The peer pressure and whining are innocent, and they are not going to kill you.  Ignore it and move on.

As a side note: I see person after person trying to fulfill every friend’s request and invitation.  Every acquaintance is given as much attention as a life-long friend.  I personally prefer having just a few friends who are enriching to be around.  Experiment with gently letting go of unfulfilling relationships so you can spend time on what really matters.

Maybe it’s work, and your co-workers and boss are pawning off tasks and projects which are either beyond your ability to complete, or even beyond the scope of your job description.  This will depend on your type of work and work environment, but there is almost always room to make some changes and make your job more sane.

Take a few moments to think through the situation at work and how it can be altered to take some of the load off.

If you have a co-worker who is unfairly pushing you to do more than your fair share of the work, call him or her out on it.  You must stand up for yourself–there’s no other way to put it.  Practice difficult conversations in your head.  Get support from your friends to gain confidence.  You don’t have to sound accusing, but just let them know, “I don’t have time to do such and such tasks.”  Or, when you are divvying up the work, and you are getting assigned things you shouldn’t have to complete, simply say “I’m sorry, I can’t take on that task.  Can you do it?”  This will at least put some pressure on the other person.  If they argue, point out how much you have been doing and how it is their turn.  I guarantee you will at least get asked less after this.

The magical thing is that you don’t have to push back every day forever.  Once you push back just once, and 3 times max, you won’t get pressured to do everything anymore.  Your friends, family, and co-workers will learn your new boundary–just how they learned your old one!–and back off.  They will ask others and spread things out.  This forces them to prioritize their requests.

This brings us to the final step, which is Ask For Help.  In fact, if you just can’t bring yourself to have these talks, asking for help will send a similar message without you having to brave up to what may feel like a scary conversation.  If you start asking for help at work and with family, this will send a clear message that you are overloaded.  They will likely back off on you and, of course, help you!  If you are in a place where it is difficult for you to even ask for help, this must be examined and healed.  You are worthy of help just as much as anyone.  There is nothing genetically special about you marking you as The Incredible Helper.  There is nothing making you less worthy of help, downtime, and plenty of self-nurturing.

I hope everyone reading will take this seriously.  Not all the most brilliant health information in the world can help you if you simply don’t have time to look after yourself, enjoy regular quiet time, meditate, take long baths, or whatever charges you up.

Wishing you plenty of “Me” Time…

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