Parents Talk Back

The Power of ‘No’

One of my dearest friends asked a simple favor not too long ago.

She wanted to know if I would speak to her Girl Scout troop about my career or my background -- really anything I wanted to talk about that would inspire or educate a group of grade-school girls. It was not a big ask. It would probably take a couple of hours, including the commute. And, like I mentioned, this is a person I admire and care about. But I was stretched thin with work, family and social obligations, and adding even one more small thing to a crowded calendar felt daunting.

You’ve been in this spot before, haven’t you? Caught in between the desire to say yes and the need to say no. There’s a point in our lives when we spend considerable energy juggling other people’s demands on our time.

Before I had a chance to think too long about this particular request (and talk myself into it), I quickly said no.

I noticed my friend seemed a little surprised.

A few years ago, I found myself saying yes far too often. I was burned out on board meetings, volunteering, organizing and speaking at events. It drained my creative energy, which I needed for work. It took precious hours away from my family. And I barely had time to see my closest friends. I remember telling a girlfriend that I wanted to drop out -- of everything.

“You need to exercise your ‘no’ muscle,” she told me. What in the world did that mean? For women, in particular, who are socialized to be people-pleasers, to avoid conflict and disappointing others, learning to say no without guilt is a skill that takes practice to develop. Ironically, it’s an ability that we all mastered as toddlers. It takes years to erode that confidence and ease of saying no. You have to relearn how to draw a boundary between your needs and those of the rest of the world.

This is the technique that worked for me: My boss would hear me on the phone frequently, trying to politely decline requests to speak to various groups or host their events. I am asked a couple of times a week, and every request feels important and worthy. It wasn’t like I didn’t want to find a way to accommodate each request; I did. But, I felt busy enough trying to keep my work and family life on track. Instead of telling others that I couldn’t commit to their event, my boss suggested that I limit myself to a couple outside commitments a month. Make it a rule, she said. I could blame her and say that I wasn’t allowed to dedicate more time than that.

It seemed so simple when she suggested it. At first, I did rely on using her as a scapegoat: “I would love to, but my editor doesn’t let me commit to more than two events a month.” But when I got into the habit of keeping track of that “bonus time” ledger in an exacting way, it became much easier to simply say that I was booked until “X” month. It felt honest, and the more I practiced it, the stronger my “no” muscle became.

I worked on saying it in low-stakes situation. I often tried to suggest another person who might be a good replacement. I also fought back feelings of guilt by focusing on feeling empowered.

This year, I said no more than I had ever said it before in my life. It gave me time that allowed me to work on a major creative project I could not have done otherwise. It allowed me to focus on areas that often get neglected. It’s important for us to prioritize our spouses or partners -- not only our children, which the vast majority of us already do. We must prioritize our closest friends. Prioritize our sleep.

My dear friend with the Girl Scout troop confessed months later that she had felt a little taken aback (and perhaps put off) when I refused her invitation. But then later on, she admired that I was able to hold firm to a boundary I had created for myself. Maybe it could inspire her to do the same, I thought.

This time of year, when the urge to give in and say yes is strongest, I give you permission to say no.

You can blame it on me.

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