It's OK to say 'No'

There’s one lesson that’s taken me too long to learn; No is a complete sentence.

For many years, I loved to lavish my yeses on the world.

My goodness, I even found a way to avoid confrontation with my toddlers by saying yes when they’d ask for a cookie before dinner. To keep peace and harmony, I’d say, “Yes, you can have a cookie after dinner.”

While it may have been a good parenting strategy to avoid tantrums as I busily prepared dinner, saying yes too often didn’t serve me well. It led to burnout and exhaustion.

One of the shortest words in the English language is often the hardest to utter, especially without a trail of excuses behind it. As a complete sentence, ‘no’ helps us draw personal boundaries that are vital if we are to be responsible agents of our own energetic coin.

I’ve used the pause offered by the pandemic to gain insight into myself and my habits that a year of busy doingness would never have allowed.

I realized I had an expensive habit of saying yes. I’d prided myself on being a can-do person who believed I could serve the world. I used to paint myself into a corner with my lavish use of the word. I’d agree to take on much more than was reasonable and, not only did I suffer, but so did those closest to me.

Learning to say ‘no’ has been a skill I’ve had to acquire over time, and I’m still growing in its application.

I’ve always been self-disciplined and good at saying no to myself about indulgent behaviours. A firm no was easy when something wasn’t a mesh with my values and integrity. But, when it came to taking on too much work or helping people, I wasn’t very good at saying it to others. It blended well with my workaholism and habit of busy, but led to sacrifice and created resentment.

While I agree with the wisdom of novelist and activist Annie Lamott who said, “No is a complete sentence,” putting her words into practice is another thing.

It turns out our human hesitance to say no is rooted in a normal desire to:

  • Be liked
  • Feel needed
  • Avoid criticism
  • Avoid losing friends or social relationships
  • Be connected to the group

Because we’re social beings, we want to feel liked and needed, causing us to try to please others by fulfilling their requests.

As humans, we have a brain-bias for yes, as no lands harshly in our neurocircuitry, and can trigger a negative response from others. It can feel unpleasant to be the one to draw the line in the sand.

Breaking the habit of yes has required me to pause and reflect before responding. Gaining self-insight and getting clear about my underlying need or desire in responding has helped me to understand what was driving my behaviour.

Before responding to a request, I pause and ask myself, “why would I say yes, and why would I say no?”

I’ve learned to explore the feelings and fears arising from both responses, and find my true motivation. This has led to my ability to offer whole-hearted yeses, has brought greater value and quality to my life, and has reduced the feelings of dread and resentment experienced when I have taken on too much.

At first, it may surprise others who are used to you saying yes but it becomes easier over time. I’ll admit, the first time was the hardest, but it felt liberating and empowering.

While I have no plans to refuse everything that comes along, I do plan to continue to really check in with myself and consider before agreeing to things off-the-cuff, like I used to.

Saying no, and thoughtful agreement had left me feeling joyful and satisfied in my giving. It’s slowed the break-neck speed at which I was living, but has increased my enjoyment of those things I value and love.

If saying no doesn’t come easy, you can begin with the baby-step of saying, “I’ll think about it.”

I want to be mindful as the world opens up, and only say yes when it adds value to life, my life, and the lives of others. Everyone gets a better me. Give it a try.

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About the Author

Corinne is first a wife, mother, and grandmother, whose eclectic background has created a rich alchemy that serves to inform her perspectives on life.

Corinne, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in Health Science, is a staff minister with the Centre for Spiritual Living Kelowna, and a hospice volunteer. She is an adjunct professor with the school of nursing  at UBC Okanagan, and is currently teaching smartUBC, a unique Mindfulness program offered at UBC, to the public. She is an invited speaker and presenter.

From diverse experience and knowledge, personally and professionally, Corinne has developed an extraordinary passion for helping people to gain a new perspective, awaken, and to recognize that we do not have to be a slave to our thoughts or to life; we are always at a point of change.

Through this column, Corinne blends her insights and research to provide food for the mind and the heart, to encourage an awakening of the power and potential within everyone.

Corinne lives in Kelowna with her husband of 41 years, and can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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