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Learning to Say No

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I have a group of chronically stressed patients who share one characteristic: their utter inability to say the word no, as in “Sorry, but no, I just don’t have time for that.” This group can be recognized by their fixed smiles, even as they’re relating stories of stress-related conditions such as chronic fatigue, anxiety, and migraines.

A cynical CEO (probably a redundancy) once told me, “Need to finish an important job? Locate the never-say-no employee. No matter how overworked she is, consider it done.”

When an endless stream of OKs, yes-es, and no-problems begins to stress you out and affect your health, it’s time to re-learn the exact pronunciation of the word “no.” To some degree, we all say yes when we don’t mean it, whether it’s a small matter (you let the salesclerk talk you into an item that’s just not you) or a not-so-small matter (you pull into a motel to have sex with your married boss). Difficulty saying no can be a lifetime pattern and is often learned early as a way of pleasing authority figures, such as parents, teachers, or your older brother who threatens to break your Barbie.

Now that you’re grown, an inability to say no can take a big toll on your personal and professional life. You start accumulating possessions, relationships, and commitments you don’t want or need. You come to resent your friends, family members, and co-workers for always asking. And you’re so busy fulfilling all your obligations that you have little time for yourself.

According to Patti Breitman and Connie Hatch, authors of How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty, women have an especially hard time saying no because they traditionally take on more responsibility in all relationships. In addition, as much as women hate rejection, they also hate rejecting

Here are a few reasons why you might have trouble saying no:
• You want to please the other person, want the other person to like you, or want to avoid confrontation.
• You don’t want to appear selfish or impolite.
• You think the other person knows better than you or that his or her needs are more important than your own.
• You feel you’re not allowed to say no or that the other person won’t take no for an answer.

Some people reflexively say yes because they can’t think of a good reason for saying no quickly enough. (“What am I doing this weekend? Uh, nothing. Why? Uh, oh sure I’ll feed your cats/fish/dog.”) Sometimes, you think you’re saying no, but you’re so wishy-washy that the other person interprets it as a yes. (“Well, I suppose I could go see that movie with you, although I’ve already seen it three times and I kind of had my heart set on this other movie, but if you really feel strongly about it…”). Then, as the agreed date approaches, you feel irritated with yourself for failing to say no yet again.

Happily, there are ways to stop agreeing to things you don’t want to agree to:
• Be direct. If you mean no, say no. (“No, I’m too busy to do any more volunteer work right now.” “No, mom, I can’t eat the turkey–I’m a vegetarian.”) Look directly at the other person and speak in a clear, firm voice. Don’t leave any room for misinterpretation. Practice in front of a mirror.

• Be prepared with a few reasons you can’t say yes. Have a good, honest excuse at the ready: “I’m really overcommitted right now.” “That’s a bad time for me.” “I have other plans.” “I have an appointment I can’t break.” “I’ve had a date scheduled with my (boyfriend, husband, son, daughter) for weeks.”

• Check your calendar. If you really can’t say no outright, postpone it. Tell the person you need to check your calendar, check with your significant other, or check your checking account. Practice saying the incredibly useful phrase, “I’m not sure–can I get back to you on that?”

• Keep a yes/no diary. A diary can be a terrific awareness tool and a way to learn from your mis-steps. For one week, record all the times you say yes when you should have said no. At the end of the week, add up all those less-than-honest “yes-es.” Evaluate how you might have handled each situation differently.

• Say no to your boss–but not always. If you say “sorry, I can’t” every time your boss asks you to work through lunch, stay late, or be available for a 10 pm conference call to Singapore, you may be out of a job. What you can do is choose your excuses carefully. And when you do say no, be positive and flexible. (“I’d love to take on the Acme Widget project, but if I do, Jonestown Grape might tank. Can Acme wait till next week? Or can I get a team together on Jonestown?”)

Finally, don’t feel guilty! This is your time and your happiness we’re talking about. Saying yes when you mean no chips away at both, certainly increases stress, and definitely affects your health. In the end, your yes behavior doesn’t help the other people in your life either.

Saying no and meaning it will bring a new honesty to your relationships, free up your busy schedule, and allow you to focus on what you really want to do.

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