(This entry combines a previous entry, dated March 14, 2011, with a new reflection).
It took me years to unlearn the habit of saying yes automatically when someone asked me for (or to do) something. So often had that single syllable fallen from my tongue that I would often agree to things before people even asked. In time I realized that I had spoiled the people around me to the point that they assumed I owed them a response of agreement, no matter how inconvenient and unreasonable it was. Many times, if I was unable to concede, they would be agitated and annoyed—and I would feel guilty. To this day I find that when I tell someone no, even a stranger, they seem surprised, almost offended, at my nerve.
And perhaps it is nerve. And the fact that saying yes all the time got on my very last one, and kept me on edge. I would say yes because as a self-described superwoman and strongblackwoman it was the only word I knew to say. I would say yes because I was flattered at the request(s), anxious to people please, and focused on making other people happy. I would say yes because it felt like the right thing to do, the polite reply to any well-intentioned question, and evidence that I was a good/nice/sweet/reliable/thoughtful/friendly/generous person. I would say yes because I felt like people were taking score, and I wanted to always be on the plus side (even though, like most people who perpetually say yes, I hardly ever asked anyone for anything). But the yeses nearly took me out. I realized that saying yes to everyone else was in essence saying no to myself. No, my personal time and space wasn’t important. No, sleep was optional and it was reasonable to expect me to accomplish multiple tasks in a day. No, I don’t deserve a moment to breathe or a moment of reprieve.
When I learned to say no, I realized that it did not require an explanation and that “No” is an adequate one word response. There didn’t have to be a substantial reason why. No. I didn’t need an excuse or grand reason that I didn’t want to participate in an event, or guest lecture in a class, or attend a workshop, or go to dinner, or review this book or this article, or go out on a date, or join a club or support group, or be a mentor/advisor/reader. No.
Sometimes it (the no) is because I am simply tired, overwhelmed, depressed, moody, PMSing, jonesing, or otherwise distracted. Other times it is because my plate is already full, overflowing with the residue of other unintentional or well-meaning yeses. And sometimes, it is because I simply don’t want to, don’t have any interest or desire to, and would prefer to indulge in doing something else or nothing at all.
No, I don’t have other plans or a laundry list of chores to accomplish first;
No, I am not sick or bedridden;
No, I don’t have a deadline or a stack of papers to grade;
No, I’m not caking or sexing or crying;
No, I just don’t want to.
I don’t feel like it.
I have a date with my damn self, bubble bath, glass of wine, mellow music and all, and I’m not breaking it. I have had a long day/week/month and I just want to chill. I need some personal, one-on-one, just me and the reflection in the mirror time. No, no, no, no, no!
So, in the spirit of knowing how to say no… I have the following suggestions that I have learned over the years (post 30):
1. Always say “no” first. Do not allow “yes” to be your default answer. It is easier to go back later and say yes, than it is to go back later and say no.
2. Never agree to do something on the spot. Always take some time to think about it and consider whether or not it is going to be an imposition. If it is, say no.
3. Limit yourself on how many things you agree to do (beyond your comfort zone) every month/semester/year, etc. I say “yes” to three things beyond my regular responsibilities every academic semester. After that, I almost always (depending on the request) say no. NOTE: I said beyond my regular responsibilities, which already leave me with limited personal time.
4. Never compromise your peace. If you have a full plate, acknowledge it. Don’t try to overcompensate for a previous “no” with a present “yes.” Never agree to do something you are not comfortable doing or that will stretch you beyond your limits. You do not owe anybody anything!
5. If you have a choice (and clearly, sometimes, whether it be for personal or professional reasons, we don’t), reserve the right to decline or say no.
6. Save some “yeses” for yourself. Women have the tendency to put other people’s needs and priorities above their own. Self-care is not selfish and even if it were, we deserve self-indulgence every now and then. Don’t say yes to something that is essentially saying “no” to yourself. Take care of yourself.
7. Don’t apologize for saying no. You have every right to decline a request or refuse an opportunity. You should not feel like you are doing something wrong, being rude, disrespectful, or obstinate. No is the other option to yes. It is a neutral response, neither positive or negative (regardless of the requestor’s reaction).
8. It is not a sin to change your mind. Don’t feel locked into something just because you may have agreed to do it in the past. Circumstances change. Your #1 obligation should be to yourself.
After reviewing my “no” list, at the near end of a painstakingly stressful week of long days and short nights, I realized that while it is important to know how to say no, it is equally important to know when to say yes. Here are some reasons to say yes:
1. Say yes if/when you are being offered a once in a lifetime opportunity. Last year I traveled to South America in August and went on a 7-day cruise with my maternal family for Thanksgiving, two things I almost declined doing because of the physical and financial costs. When I thought about the uniqueness of each opportunity, and how I may never have the same chance again, I said yes.
2. Say yes when saying yes makes you feel good. Whether it be indulging in a sinful dessert, buying the bad-ass shoes, or making love, give in to your cravings when possible. And let others love on/take care of you.
3. Say yes when saying yes can/will make a positive difference in someone’s life (including your own). Sometimes something seemingly insignificant to you can have a lasting impact on someone else. And sometimes the smallest effort on your part can make a significant difference in your future.
4. Say yes when you really want to say yes. While I don’t think we should ever say yes out of some sense of responsibility, if you want to say yes, you should! There have been times I have been tempted to say no just for the hell of it, or because I was already over-committed, or because I didn’t want to seem too available, or because I didn’t want to seem over-eager, or because I wanted to give someone else the opportunity, or because I felt guilty for having declined a different invitation (see #3 of The No List), or out of concern about what someone else may think/say. At the end of the day, if it is something you want to do, something that will make you happy, do it!
5. Say yes when it is the opportunity to do something you have never done before. Be open to new experiences. (Hike a mountain…why not!?!)
6. Say yes when saying yes can benefit your overall health and well being (i.e., yoga, juicing, massage, exercise). Sometimes saying yes is saying no… yes to healthy choices, is no to unhealthy ones.
7. If it has anything to do with your Mama… say yes!
8. If there is ever a conflict between the yeses and the no’s (meaning you feel conflicted or uneasy and/or you feel ambivalent) say no!! A guilt-inspired or unenthusiastic yes is really a silent no. Say your no’s out loud (so people can hear them)!
9. Always revert to #1, 2, 3, 6, 7 & 8 of The No List.
Here’s a little Destiny’s Child to bring this throwback flashback full circle.