N. O. The small, two-letter word that tantrum-throwing toddlers toss out with abandon, but that many adults find hard to say. Recently, a friend’s Facebook status read that she needed to learn how to say “No.” It wasn’t Throwback Thursday and yet her admission beamed me back in time.
I traveled back nine years to when I lived deep in mommy-land with my children in elementary and middle schools. It was a time when I was a yes-woman regarding activities for either my kids or myself.
Well-meaning invitations rolled in: join our such-and-such group, attend this event, fill a spot on our organization’s board, plan an upcoming party and lead a committee on anything from A to Z. These invites didn’t always align with my interests and my days were already stretched thin with family responsibilities and making the most of scant writing time. Still, in my yes-woman life, I sold paper goods for one organization, filled board spots—often as secretary, always the writer and note taker—and I joined things, including a bunco group and a gourmet supper club that always met on school nights.
I needed a time-management reboot. I needed to say no to some things, and yet I couldn’t utter the word.
If only I could travel back in time and shake some sense into my younger self, because as I write this article, I scratch my head and ask, “Why was I such a wimp!?!”
I’ve pinned my spinelessness on insecurity and ignorance.
My insecurity sprang from the fact that I enjoyed the company of the people doling out the invitations. Did I worry that the asker wouldn’t be my friend if I declined?
You bet I did.
Years later, and that is still hard to admit.
What I didn’t realize then, but do now, is that if someone unfriended me in the real world because I couldn’t participate in their organization, then I didn’t need them in my life.
Then they weren’t a true friend.
Ignorance contributed to my can’t-say-no affliction in that I blindly believed that I could do it all. In fact, I believed that I should do it all. All. The. Time. It was easy to buy into the idea that if I wasn’t doing everything, then I had failed at life. I was a stay-at-home mom, not a corporate executive, but I think I was leaning in before the phrase was coined. And like this Washington Post article shows, I needed to recline instead.
In the years that my insecurity and ignorance ruled, my family’s days and my days looked as packed as an Apple Store on the Saturday before Christmas. I’d maxed out my life with volunteering, groups and my kids’ activities: dance, acting, guitar, soccer, softball, and various art classes. Name it and we did it. If I caught my reflection in a storefront window while shuttling my brood, I found a miserable-looking woman with a stress-squished face.
One night, I told my husband, “I feel like I’m running through my life instead of living it.” Tears flowed.
He pulled out a box of Kleenex. “Then cut back,” he said. “Say no.”
If life was a cheesy-old television drama then someone would have cued up some dum-dum-dum music. “I can’t do that,” I said.
“Sure you can. It’s easy.”
“But what will I say no to?”
“To whatever doesn’t make sense for you. And our kids don’t have to do every activity just because it exists.”
“They don’t?” I asked. Really? I thought.
I had married a smart guy, but in that instance he was both right and wrong. He was right in that of course I possessed the power of speech and could physically say no, but as for it being easy—he was dead wrong.
Yet, by employing baby steps, I followed his advice. When the next batch of extracurricular sign-ups rolled around, I told my kids “No” to one or two. Then, I slowly plucked myself out of some groups and organizations. But my backbone didn’t stiffen overnight. To ensure that I wouldn’t chicken out on the first few calls, I wrote and followed a basic script.
Thank you, but I can’t take you up on that right now. I won’t be able to give your group/event/organization the time or attention it deserves.
From there, my family and I gained breathing room. We sat down to dinner together more frequently, and my kids’ downtime and playtime increased. Everyone was happier. My shoulders inched down from around my ears. Soon after, when I glimpsed myself in a window, I found a smile.
I remember happily chanting “No, no, no” all the way to my car.
Today, even though I carry “No” in my pocket and I’m not afraid to use it, that doesn’t mean I won’t volunteer for a cause I believe in or join a group that interests me. In 2015, the difference is that I assess whether a new addition fits my life—I make sure it fits me. My yes-woman ways are reserved for friends or relatives in need.
Learning to say no was one of the hardest lessons of my adult life.
And it was also one of the most valuable.