What is it about these two little letters that make this one little word so difficult to say? Fatimah Jackson-Best reflects on how saying no helps to set healthy boundaries.
I have always had a tendency to say yes. No matter how many responsibilities there were at work or how tired I felt, I would agree to that one extra thing someone asked me to do. Sometimes it resulted in staying up all night proofreading a friend’s essay or being at an event when I really would have rather been in bed. At the time, I thought it was worth it because I did something for someone else that made them happy, but I rarely stopped to think about how I felt.
As I continued with this, it began to occur to me that my efforts had become more about people-pleasing than doing something because it was helpful. Human beings (and especially women) are taught that we should put others before ourselves to avoid seeming selfish. It doesn’t help that we live in a culture that glorifies being busy, exalts multitasking, and encourages us to schedule every little thing.
So many of us are stretched to the maximum but continue to take on responsibilities that we don’t really want, because we are afraid to say that we are too busy, fearing that it might sound mean. These circumstances create a prime opportunity for taking on too much and developing a fear of the word no. In my case, a lot of times I was making other people happy but inconveniencing myself. That’s when I realised something had to change.
I am no longer scared to say no. This is because I realised that constant people-pleasing is a sure way to become miserable. Of course it feels great when you’re able to help someone out in a difficult situation, but when these things happen frequently and the responsibilities start piling up, the joy starts to diminish. Also, the intention behind someone requesting help is equally as important as your reason for agreeing to help. If neither comes from a genuine place, other feelings will eventually start to creep in, like resentment and dislike. I had to start saying no because I realised that keeping my relationships was important, but not if they didn’t factor in respect for one another’s time.
I also came to terms with the fact that saying yes all the time had blurred the lines for my friends, family and loved ones. People started to expect that I would do things at the last minute because I never refused them. When I began to say no, some feelings got hurt. Setting boundaries for how and when I could assist helped me to be able to refuse certain responsibilities because people knew what I would or would not do.
When I explained that I would need advance notice to help with things like essays or assignments, the people in my life started to ask for my help well before a deadline, rather than the night before it was due. Boundary making can be awkward, especially when limits have not existed before, but sometimes we have to experience discomfort to push us towards change.
It can be even harder to say no to someone who has some authority over you, like a boss or supervisor. No one wants to disrespect someone they admire or who cuts them a pay cheque! But no relationship that is imbalanced can sustain itself for too long, including the ones we have at work. Nothing is wrong with being focused on moving up in a career or within a company, but along the way it is possible to be taken advantage of.
Know your surroundings and what you are capable of. If you want the promotion or raise at all costs, then go all out for it, but be aware that the expectations for you will always be high and you may not be able to satisfy them all the time. This is where honesty and foresight can make a huge difference in our lives by thinking beyond the here and now.
Saying no can be tricky but as our lives continue to expand, our priorities will inevitably change too. No isn’t a bad word. If said correctly, it can be one of the most empowering sounds to leave your lips.