Her Spirit Special: Mastering the Art of “No”
Recently I told a little white lie. I said “no” when I could have said “yes.” Technically, I could have done what was being asked of me. I was available, and it wouldn’t have cost me a dime. I even had an appropriate outfit hanging in my closet, just back from the dry cleaners. All I needed to do was show up at a public function, shake some hands, and make a few remarks. But I’d said “sure” to this request several times in the past, and for some reason this time around the words “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to help you” came out of my mouth so fast, and with such authority, you’d think I’d been denying people for generations.
Up until now, for the most part at least, I have prided myself on answering all who came calling in the affirmative. Need a committee chair at church? I’m your gal. Looking for someone to organize a new book club in the neighborhood? Count me in. Related to a recent college graduate who’s looking for a job? Send her my way. Today, though, as I enter my 49th year, nothing is more precious to me than my time. Tick tock.
Like many Southern women, I blame my propensity to try to make everyone happy on my mother. Because of her pristine example, politeness — translated in her parlance as “of course, I’d be glad to help you” — has long been my standard response when I’m asked for any of the following: a favor, a loan, a job lead, a sorority recommendation, an introduction to a publisher, a free editorial consultation, another volunteer shift. You have your own such lists, I’m sure. In my eagerness to please, I’ve contorted myself into futile friendships, unpaid writing gigs, and dresses that made my hips look even wider than they are.
When I heard about an accomplished writer who stopped meeting acquaintances for lunch when they called to “talk about publishing,” I was aghast. She’s famous, I thought to myself, and she owes it to the rest of her literary sisters to give back. She couldn’t do it anymore, she explained, because it took too much of her time. Time she needed to devote to her work, her family, her passions. I was dismissive of that woman until I became her.
It’s not like I’m completely unfamiliar with the concept of no. I’d start with the repeated requests made to my parents for a trampoline when I was in elementary school, but I don’t want to come across as the kind of person who holds grudges. And then there was the time I wanted to transfer to a different high school. That’s when my father pulled out the “you don’t always get what you want in life” speech. In other words, “no.”
Several years ago, I was turned down by a woman I hoped would be able to mentor me in my career. She was eloquent in her explanation of why she simply could not take on one more commitment, to another project or another person. Her refusal stung at first, but I suspect it would have hurt more if she had agreed to help me and then not been able to deliver. Now that I am sometimes in her shoes, I appreciate anew the necessity of knowing one’s self, and one’s schedule. I realize that saying no is not about rejection. It’s about honoring that which matters most to you. And look, here’s an added bonus: the Mayo Clinic advocates saying no in order to decrease your stress level!
That “little white lie” was my opening salvo in this new world of no, so I can’t yet tell whether my unwillingness to say yes will diminish me in the eyes of others, especially those who are used to hearing me say, “Of course I’d be glad to help you.” Maybe they will come to label me as “uncooperative” or “selfish.” I hope not, but the difference between the 48-year-old me and the 49-year-old me is that I’m willing to find out. Just try me.
“I dreamt my whole life about being a mother,” says Heidi Jellison. “I never dreamt about a big wedding, honestly never even dreamt about the husband part.” Jellison, a 35-year-old concert harpist and harp teacher, laughs at this last bit, but then her face settles into a quiet solemnity.
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