I don’t know whether Anne Lamott is the one who first came up with the phrase “ ‘No’ is a complete sentence,” but when I heard Oprah Winfrey quote it several years ago, it resonated. (I bet she got it out of one of Annie’s books.)
And I love this quote from really successful businessman Warren Buffett:
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
A lot of us have trouble saying no. We have visions of being cast as self-centered contrarians who don’t want to pull our share of the load, who never want to have any fun or who just like being difficult (not that I know anyone like that). We don’t want people to think we’re NOT NICE.
In the past couple of years, I’ve developed the ability to say no (sometimes), mainly out of self-preservation. I’ve had some health issues, I’m getting older (and creakier) and my schedule is packed. At some point, I finally realized that it was time to STOP THE MADNESS, that it was OK not to be all things to all people at all times (I’m trying to teach my husband this lesson, too). I’ve learned that even if someone doesn’t understand my motives for declining an invitation or a request for help, that’s OK; I’m the only one who has to walk in my shoes, the only one who looks at my silly mug in the mirror every morning.
I’ve learned to prioritize what I need and want to do and trim out things that won’t help me maintain a healthy balance in my life. (Even with all the no’s, a healthy balance is challenging.)
Saying no can be difficult when one of your main gifts is “volunteering” or “helping.” I’ve felt all my life that one of the things that gives my life meaning is helping others. It’s difficult when you belong to a church that has so many areas that need volunteers (all churches do, right?). I recently shared (unwisely, judging by the reaction) that I finally realized I wasn’t gifted to work with children. I love teaching adult studies (I’m a volunteer with a financial stewardship ministry), but I jokingly mentioned that a recent month helping out in Sunday school was like “a prison sentence.” I’m OK with the fact that God gave me a preference for adult ministry rather than children’s, but that is not always a popular admission among fellow churchgoers (probably not the best choice of words, either: prison sentence). Apparently this preference makes me a freak of nature (aren’t all women supposed to enjoy working with children?), but I learned a long time ago that I’m not like “everyone else.”
For years and years, I volunteered every summer at vacation Bible school, and I worked my tail off to prepare the lessons each day (I even had a co-leader say I did an “excellent” job with the lessons and was great with the kids). But I didn’t really enjoy it. I faked my enthusiasm. I had volunteered solely because I thought I was expected to (by others, by God, by the little Chinese orphans who went to bed every night without VBS).
Is that the person you want teaching your kids every Sunday (or for a week every summer)? Probably not.
Lots of people think this means I don’t like children. Please hear me. I like children. I actually love being a nursery worker, where the babies don’t talk or walk yet, where the most challenging thing is changing a poopy diaper, but I am not gifted for children’s ministry. I’m just not. (I could even tell you some of the reasons, but that’s not the point of this post.)
I finally got tired of faking it and started saying no to VBS and Sunday school requests. (Does that mean I stopped feeling guilty and sometimes defensive about saying no? No.)
Also, I stopped signing up for every women’s Bible study that was put on the schedule, whether as a participant or a leader. I was asked to lead a couple of them, and it was during a time when I was experiencing a lot of fatigue, so I did a crappy job because I was too tired to prepare properly and, to be frank, I was too exhausted to care. NOT GOOD.
So … can you see where I’m headed? “No” is sometimes a good thing – a necessary thing – if you’re saying it for the right reasons. (“Too lazy” may not be the best reason, but “too tired” because of poor health or a demanding job – or both – may be. And sometimes “I don’t want to” is good enough; it just depends on the circumstances.)
Saying no takes practice. It takes some muscle flexing. But, just as with any muscle, with regular use the “no” muscle gets stronger and exercising it gets easier. (Then you get to move on to more challenging stuff.)
Here are eight tips for why and how to say no graciously:
Can you think of a time you said yes when you should have said no? What lesson did you learn?
Tomorrow: O is for “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King.
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