Saying ‘No’ to Saying ‘Yes’

In the words of Rodgers and Hammerstein, “I’m just a girl who can’t say no.”

For as long as I can remember, I have always had an issue turning things down – be they work obligations, extra-credit assignments in school, party invitations, missing an event or class I’d planned to attend, even casual get-togethers.

People love stating that saying ‘yes’ to everything opens your world to opportunities and new experiences, which it undoubtably does.  However, agreeing to do everything begins to add up – so where is the limit?  I took a course a few years ago, while still a student, on persuasive writing.  The professor informed all the eager students in my section that in a professional setting, or really any setting at all, people want to say ‘yes.’  Saying yes is easier, it’s fun, it makes you feel better about your decision.  The class taught us, among other techniques, how to craft questions that could always be answered in the affirmative, even if that answer was really a ‘no’ in disguise.  So I am certainly not alone in my aversion to saying ‘no.’

Perhaps saying no – picking and choosing each event, obligation or lunch date – is a skill.  In high school I never had to learn how to be judicious with my time.  The school schedule allowed students to pursue music on one afternoon and sports on another – so I could do both!  In college, there was mention of study-life balance as a concept, but there were also semester credit limits to keep us in check, and leave room for dorm parties and movie nights.  Life in your 20ies is a little less organized.  No one is going to tell you that you cannot practice volleyball on Mondays because you have a history test, or that you cannot take 22 credits and write your thesis (not that I ever attempted that many credits!) like the good ol’ days.  The world is full of possibilities, assignments and commitments, and I could say ‘YES’ to ALL of them!

It is not simply that I say ‘yes’ to events or work that I do not want to do.  I say ‘yes’ to things that are interesting or important to me or those around me.  I do want to finish that draft of the assignment for work, AND attend the volunteer event AND meet my friend from out-of-town for dinner, but I cannot do them all the same night.  So then I have to make a choice, and it’s this choice that leads to the stress.  First comes the anxiety about which event to choose, then comes the guilt about turning down the other obligations.  I know it sounds like I stress  a lot about trivial decisions (I’m not saying this is not true) but I also think it is a wide-spread affliction.  People generally hate disappointing other people, and saying ‘no’, we believe, inevitably means we are disappointing someone.

Since discovering my proclivity toward saying ‘yes’, I have tried to say it in more discerning contexts.  It is getting easier to say ‘no’ to an evening at a bar when all I want is bad tv, pretzels and my sofa.  There are two areas, however, that still trip me up.  One is saying ‘no’ to an ongoing obligation, for example, if I am working on a longterm project and have to miss a meeting related to it, I feel like I have failed to show my dedication.  The second is learning to prioritize social and family events, which is especially difficult if they are in conflict with work.  Simply because I could not make a housewarming party does not mean I do not care for my friend or her new 1 bedroom.  Skipping a meeting here or there to catch up on other projects or attend a family dinner does not mean I am not committed to work.  However, I imagine that practice will make perfect, and I will continue to ask myself what I really want instead of just blurting out ‘yes’ to every request.

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