How saying no gave me freedom to be myself and find greater joy in everyday living
In 1993, we had a landline. Didn’t you?
Our family phone was in the kitchen, and it was a staple of my childhood. Right next to it was my mom’s address book; it had a cow on the front of it and was filled with phone numbers and addresses, some erased and updated, all in alphabetical order. The phone was near the sink because every night after dinner my mom put on her headset attachment and talked to her girlfriends while she did the dishes.
Also in 1993, I was 11, I was terrified of boys, and Free Willy was playing in the movie theaters. That summer, a boy called our beloved landline and asked me to go to the movies—Free Willy, of course. Terror struck my belly. I could think of nothing worse than going to the movie with a boy. After the call, I remember my mom standing by the sink, doing the dishes, and she said to me, “just say no. And you can blame it on me if you want.”
Relief flooded my tiny body. Not only had she given me permission to say no, she had told me *how* to do it. To blame it on her. I called the boy. “I can’t go,” I said. “My mom won’t let me.”
That permission and the tiny white lie she gave me went right into my toolbelt and I carried it with me through the rest of my years at home. Any time I didn’t want to, I blamed it on my mom. It seems logical, but as a small, honest child—we don’t always think of those things. And as a young girl, it can be so very hard to say No. So often we are often conditioned to be kind and polite—if not by our parents, then by the world around us.
My mom rarely did anything she didn’t want to do, and I rolled my adolescent eyes at her social divergence. Why couldn’t she go to the PTA meetings, or be on the sidelines at the football games? I’d wonder. Well, she really didn’t want to and so she didn’t. As a family, she opted us out of many social obligations because she didn’t want to waste her time or energy on things that didn’t feel good. I am lucky that she passed that legacy on to me.
When I became an adult, it was harder to use the “my mom said no” excuse, and so I had to evolve and adapt with my no-saying. In my young adulthood, it was hard. I said yes a lot when I didn’t really want to, and I did tons of things because I thought I should, or because everyone was doing those things, too. This is, I know now, the process of learning about oneself. It is rare to know ourselves completely without doing things sometimes for the wrong reason, or doing something we wish we hadn’t.
But then I became a mother.
After that, my free time was so incredibly rare and precious that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I could not say “yes” to one single thing that didn’t feel good to me or make my day feel restful and rewarding. Which meant I started saying No to almost everything. Even one obligation in the afternoon would cleave my day in half, ruining its continuity and flow. And so I said No over and over again until it became like sugar on my tongue. Easy.
At first, I used a crutch to say No: the white lie. “I don’t feel good,” or “we have an appointment” or something like that. I think it’s totally fine to say something like this if saying No is important to your spiritual well-being.
As I grew older, though, I wanted to be able to say No without the crutch as much as possible, and so I started new strategies. I learned to stop saying “Let’s get together sometime!” compulsively to every single person I ran into, when I knew we never would. I learned to say “I’m going to stay home today,” which is the truth and it’s simple. This practice of honesty has brought a lot of strength into my life. For instance, one afternoon after a very emotional day, I thought about cancelling a date with a friend. I wanted to tell her I didn’t feel good. Instead, I told her the truth. She encouraged me to rouse myself from my bed and come meet her, and I did. We met for dinner and she listened and counseled me, making that part of my day a win after what felt like devastating loss. If I had lied, that probably wouldn’t have happened.
Learning to say No is an ongoing process for me. As a professional woman I’m learning to say No in work and with other kinds of commitments. I’m learning to say No in relationships, in friendships, in the way that I’m treated or spoken to. As a mother of a teenager, I’m learning to say No to so many things, big and small, and it’s exhausting. It’s always an art, there is always a balance to be sought.
But what I do know, is that any time I say yes or allow something that ends up feeling like a slow tension in my stomach, I know that I need my No. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s really really hard. It’s hard to go back and say No to something you’ve already said yes to. It’s hard to go forward saying no to something you’ve always allowed. It’s really hard to say No to people you love, or people you admire, or people whose eye you’ve always wanted to catch. A friend told me once, No is your password to the next level. And in that moment, she floored me. Oh my goodness, I thought. It’s so true. You only become more of yourself when you say No to something hard or difficult. Once you move through the challenge, a thousand doors open up, and onward you go.
Sometimes saying No doesn’t even use the word No, and that can be even trickier. No is also boundaries. It’s saying “you can’t speak to me that way” or “I won’t hang out with someone who doesn’t listen to me” or “you cannot keep ignoring me” or whatever. No is determining how you will be treated, what you will tolerate, who you will spend your precious time with, and what your priorities are.
No one will help you live in alignment with your priorities. Only you will do that. No one will help you not get burnt out. Only you will do that. And no one will raise the bar of standards of how you are treated. Only you will do that.
It’s a lot of responsibility.
And No really is the answer.
photo by Shannon Iris Photography