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The Stress of Yes
10 Thoughts on Why & How to Say No For the Higher Good
How do we follow our hearts, use our abilities and give something of value to the world while keeping everyone happy? We don’t. How do we heal or stay physically and mentally healthy, while keeping everyone happy? We don’t.
We’re allotted only so much time, energy and attention in this life. When we say, “Yes” to requests, but want to say, “No,” we are saying, “No” to all the other things we could have spent those scarce resources on.
When we go against ourselves, our bodies know. We experience some degree of physiologic stress, which means higher stress hormones, inflammation, less ability to detoxify, digest and be present with ourselves and people in our life. If we’re unable to effectively say “No,” just knowing there could be a line of people around the corner with lists of Favors to Ask is stressful,
Aside from chronic stress, reactive people pleasing fragments the mind. When asked over dinner about the most important factor in their success, Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs both responded, “Focus.” From Steve Jobs:
"People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”
…and from Warren Buffett:
“You’ve gotta keep control of your time and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.”
If we say, “Yes” when we’d rather decline, we’re more likely to become resentful and not bring our best to whatever we’ve agreed. The risk of conflict in the relationship rises.
But what about the person who can’t take “No” for an answer? Well… we can give them the opportunity to learn.
When we take care of ourselves, we are taking care of our relationships - even if the other person doesn’t see it that way, …at least initially. An effective and respectful “No” can be novel in a system that hasn’t encouraged separateness. “We can do that?... We can say, ‘No’ nicely and not ruin a relationship?” Usually we can.
It is of course possible that a respectful decline is met with anger and/or attempts to shame us. Perhaps that is why we over-commit. This recognition alone brings to light significant problems in a relationship (or with the person with whom we are in a relationship) that we may have denied.
When we do say, “No,” we’re saying, “Yes” to our higher purpose or rather, a higher good.
“For those who might be thinking that I’ve gone all Ayn Rand and I'm suggesting that our choices only make sense if they maximize our self-interest, I should point out - One of the main reasons we should protect our time, passions and abilities is so we can harness them in a way that’s not just good for us, but for the world.”
I wrote that in 2012, still trying to convince myself. I still had a ways to go with this skill. Over the years, I’ve been asked to speak or do podcast interviews. Though I always believed those activities would serve what I see as my calling - to share information about the root causes of brain symptoms - I found instead, that most of those activities did more to support someone else’s mission while distracting me from my own.
Similarly, I’ve been asked if I would discount my rates. Many years ago, I did provide a sliding scale. It was cumbersome and eventually I stopped, but I still felt stressed when asked. All the while, I was giving half of my time to sharing and teaching online without compensation. Eventually, I got to a place of comfortably and kindly saying, “No.” With that “No“ I might share where I do “give of my time and expertise” and explain that keeping my rates steady allows me to give in the ways that I do.
Some of us have a harder time saying “No.” On one hand, this is natural. We are wired for connection. I do think for those of us who are women, we’ve been more conditioned to be agreeable.
Separately, some of us never learned to say, “No.” Perhaps we grew up with adults that didn’t know how. Maybe our “No,” if ever voiced, resulted in negative, harsh or severe consequences. By necessity, we became masters of people-pleasing.
I also think part of our sensitivity to others can be impacted by the temperament we come into the world with. Some of us are simply more sensitive to everything, including the emotions and subtle messages of others. In a future newsletter, I may talk about how Pyrroles, Mast Cell Activation, being “wired for danger” per RCCX theory, or a Slow COMT &/or MAOA can contribute to this high sensitivity.
But even with our histories and our biochemistry, we can still rewire our brain to feel safe and secure as we take care of our needs and goals in a respectful way. This can take time, self compassion, but also knowing how.
I don’t have a lot of rules, but one is that I always give myself time to think about a request, even if it happens to be something I’m fairly sure I want to do. In the moment of being asked, it’s easy to forget about the other realities of my life. If something is a good fit, it still will be the next day or the next week. Taking time reflects a respect for myself, the other person and their request. If I’m told a response in that moment, I will decline then.
To know when to say, “No” and when to say, “Yes” requires the ability to listen inwardly. This might involve a walk in nature, writing in a journal or talking with someone who listens well.
I do think listening to our body is key. As we think about doing whatever is being requested, we can notice how we feel in our body. We can actually ask ourselves, “How does that feel?” Usually we easily know, but it’s the fear of the saying, “No” that starts the questioning of our “inner knowing.” When we acknowledge fear as a normal response, it begins to lose its power.
As I’ve become more discerning about what it is I commit to, I’ve found asking “Is it a Hell Yes?” helpful. This screening question comes from Derek Sivers (author and entrepreneur) who said, “It’s either a Hell Yeah or a No.”
Once we know which it is, we can put our attention to how we will actually say, “No.”
“Peter Drucker, in my view the father of modern management thinking, was also a master of the art of the graceful no. When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian professor most well known for his work on ‘flow,’ reached out to interview a series of creative individuals for a book he was writing on creativity, Drucker’s response was interesting enough to Mihaly that he quoted it verbatim: ‘I am greatly honored and flattered by your kind letter of February 14th — for I have admired you and your work for many years, and I have learned much from it. But, my dear Professor Csikszentmihalyi, I am afraid I have to disappoint you. I could not possibly answer your questions. I am told I am creative — I don’t know what that means…I just keep on plodding…I hope that you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours — productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work that Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.’”
My personal preference is to spend fewer words and not invoke waste paper baskets. But as I mentioned in a recent newsletter, even how we say “No” is art. There’s not one way, but I do try to:
Thank the person for the opportunity, which I mean. It's nice to be invited to do things.
Let the person know I’m focused on other things right now. I may or may not share what those other things are.
Communicate with clarity and brevity. I think this honors my time and the time of the other person. Not being clear or over-explaining, can suggest there’s room to change my mind or that I’m feeling that I should be saying, “Yes.”
Having historically been an excessive apologizer, I do try to avoid this when declining a request. That doesn’t mean I don’t have empathy for the person not getting their request met. It’s just I don’t need to make it about me. (When I used to over-apologize, I made many things about me).
Knowing when, why and how to say, “No,” doesn’t mean that it’s not difficult or even scary at times. For this, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes.
"May I have the courage today, to live the life I would love ... to postpone my dream no longer. But do at last what I came here for and waste my heart on fear no more." John O’Donohue (poet and philosopher)
May you have the courage to live the life that you would love,
Until next time,