Just Say No

Just Say No

Is there a word that is harder to say than ‘no? Small and so very loaded. And yet, it’s a word which we aren’t saying nearly enough. It’s taken me a while to get there but now that I’ve felt the absolute thrill of saying ‘no’, of how empowering it is to say, I’m going to be saying it a heck of a lot more from now on.

Saying ‘no’, for those of you who aren’t quite there yet either signals you understand you have a choice in life. Saying ‘no’ is setting a boundary of what is and isn’t acceptable. It signals self-respect and self-confidence, that you value yourself and your work-life balance.

And admittedly that’s hard because we live in a society that focuses on the power of yes. ‘Yes’ advocates risk taking, positivity, open-mindedness, tolerance and plenty more admirable values and concepts. ‘No’ meanwhile is negative, it’s also very definite sounding. ‘No’ is a toughie to deliver, in large part because we have a gut sense of how it will be received—i.e not very well.

But learning to say ‘no’ is one of the most important life skills we can learn, particularly if you are prone (like I was) to people pleasing. I’m going to blame it on my birth order (as the eldest of three siblings) but I really hated saying no.

Truth was, I liked being dependable Carolyn who never let anyone down. But then, I started to feel like a doormat. I noticed (especially at work) how people who said ‘no’ were asked to do more interesting work and commissions. Rather than simply asking them for any help they might be able to give, their ‘no’ made their ‘yes’ more meaningful. It made them specialists and their advice and help was more highly prized and sought after. And, as there was the possibility they might not be available (because they frequently said ‘no’) they were always offered anything juicy first, whereas the doormat who was always available….do you see how this is panning out? I wonder how many of you have learnt this the hard way too.

Saying no meant they left work on time and established a better life/work balance. And contrary to the reality that anyone thought they were lazy, well, they exuded such an attractive aura of self-confidence that people were just appreciative when they were in the office, buzzing like moths to a flame.

From our first internships in the work place, we’re taught to make ourselves indispensable. And while I’m totally behind working hard, don’t kid yourself. No one is indispensable. The company will not collapse if you leave, sure it may not function as efficiently but it will adapt, regroup, rethink its dynamic, but it will go on without you.

The first time I said ‘no’ at work, I couldn’t believe how good it felt. I had just returned to work with my second baby who was nine months old. I was about to work four consecutive weekends abroad when a senior editor pulled me aside and asked me if I would do a fifth weekend. Actually, that’s not true, she asked if I would work the weekend. In hindsight, I don’t think she had any idea I was already going to be away that much.

I fumed internally, stewing at the injustice of her request. I hesitated. Was this career suicide? But I knew my husband was going to be away too that weekend and I was hardly going to bill my office for 72 hours of childcare.

I said no waiting for her to look at me disapprovingly. Without flinching, she asked a colleague sitting next to her, who jumped at the opportunity. While I’d been internalising how she might react, it had never occurred to me she was just ticking off a box and she possibly didn’t really give a fig who covered the story as long as it was covered.

This also picks up on something I wrote about a couple of months ago. It’s worth taking the time to factor in the whole picture. What are you actually saying ‘no’ to? Because all too often, most of us are all just ticking off boxes as we hurtle through our day, and ask favours of each other with scant regard to the demands and pressures of each other’s lives. Before you take anything too personally, take the time to listen.

There’s much to admire in someone who knows their limits, who can manage their time wisely and is realistic with the expectations placed on them. It denotes a maturity that is not shared by the person who takes on too much and who then fails to deliver.

The difference between ‘no’ and negativity is that negativity is an ongoing attitude. ‘No’ is a moment of clear choice. It announces something affirmative as in, ‘this is not something I feel comfortable with, this is not my truth’…it’s an affirmation which acknowledges personal responsibility.

Remember, there is no infinite pool from which we draw our strength. I (and I alone) am responsible for eating well, getting enough sleep, staying fit, staying sane. It’s something I wish more ‘juggling-it-all-mothers’ would remember in the hurly-burly of life. You owe it to yourself to say ‘no’ more. I could write a thesis on moaning mums. Take charge of your life and set boundaries. Nobody-not even your kids, actually, especially not your kids- wants to be around a martyr. We are instinctively drawn to people who are happy, light, decisive, confident and not strung out.

If in doubt, listen to what your gut is saying? As Claudia Azula Altucher says in The Power of NO, ‘it’s only when I haven’t followed my intuition that things have gone completely wrong. It’s when I force things the way I want them to go, ignoring that pull in my stomach, that senses that something is funny, which is when I mess up.’

Your gut is incredible, but then, that’s a whole other story.