Learning how to say no to others in order to be able to look after ourselves is a hard skill to learn for some – I know, I was one of those people who thought that they had to say yes to everything anyone asked of me and I was constantly running myself ragged, feeling drained and depleted of resources.
There are many reasons people get into the Yes habit. In childhood “being good” and the behaviour that goes with that is highly regarded by adults. This means that doing what you are told or not answering back was rewarded and we don’t learn to speak up or advocate for (or sometimes even notice) our own needs because that would be too uncomfortable for the adults in our lives to deal with and they let us know this. Later in the workplace, being the reliable one, the dependable one – the one everyone can always count on brings rewards. And the Yes behaviour seeps into every aspect of our lives as we forget there is any other way of operating.
Brené Brown talks about it as a shame blocking mechanism. If we can be everything to everyone it hides our shame of not being enough. I think this sums it up nicely.
So how do you know whether your Yes habit has got to the point of being unhealthy - holding you back from happiness and joy - and you need to make a shift?
Can you name 10 things you do solely for your own pleasure?
I often ask those I am working with to write a list of 10 things that are life affirming and nurturing solely for them. It is not uncommon for people to only come up with a couple or to create a list that includes, what I would consider maintenance items ie if you weren’t doing them your life would be compromised like eating, showering. Now maintenance items can be nurturing and life affirming but there is a world of difference between a daily shower and a luxurious soak in the tub or grabbing a museli bar for breakfast as you run out the door and enjoying a beautiful meal.
Do you often feel resentful or angry for no specific reason? Or are you irritated, critical or judgemental of people you see as selfish or people who say no to you?
Perhaps you snap at your partner or kids and don’t really know why or have feelings of resentment or anger you can’t explain. This is a good sign that you need to dig deeper and work out what is going on for you. It may just be that you are giving so much you have nothing left for you. And similarly, we often criticise and judge people who have qualities we need more of in our lives.
Can you articulate the priorities in your life?
Most of us are good at naming the priorities that relate to others such as partner or children but what about those priorities that have nothing to do with other people.
If you need to make a shift -What can you do? Remember change needs to be a conscious process – it won’t happen on its own – you need to make it happen.
Learn how to say NO
Practice it right now NO NO . How does it sound… think of scenarios where you find it easy to say NO then think of scenarios where you find it hard to say NO. What will it take to make the hard NO’s easier? Some of us are such automatic Yes sayers that we don’t have any mechanism for checking in on ourselves about whether this is something we want to say Yes to or not. Some strategies that can help include:
When someone asks you to do something you do not need to provide an answer straight away. It is OK to say can I get back to you on that. And then agree when and how you will get back to them. This then gives you the time to work out what you want. If your answer is No be firm – you do not need to provide a huge excuse but importantly don’t back down. This is hard at first but gets easier the more you practice.
Look at all the things you are currently saying yes to and work out against your priorities (see below) if you still want to say Yes. If not work out an exit strategy for each one and implement it. Eg you may not be able to immediately end a commitment you have made but you can make a plan to not renew that commitment or give notice of your intention to end it by a certain date. Again stay firm under pressure.
Know your priorities and where you want to invest your time
A conscious process of thinking through where you want to invest your time can really help in knowing what you want to say Yes or No to. My little picture is a tool I use to regularly assess the balance in my life. Each of the bubbles represents something that is important to me in my life, brings me joy, makes me feel whole – knowing what makes up each of those bubbles helps me prioritise where I put my time. If any of the bubbles gets too full it generally means it is draining energy from another bubble and I am missing out on something that is life enhancing for me. I need to stop saying yes to the bubble that is getting too big eg say no to additional work and say yes to more fun activities.
Embrace or reframe selfishness
Many of us are scared of appearing selfish. It is a term or label most of us are uncomfortable owning as rarely is it heard in life “I really admire your selfishness”. Instead what we usually get is a critical accusation “You’re so selfish” but remember that is usually in the context of the person who has said it, not getting something they want from you – so it is all about them. Replace the idea of selfishness with self care and remember that essentially you are unable to attend to caring for anyone else if you cannot care for yourself properly.
Say goodbye to guilt
Guilt as an emotion or feeling is useful in that it is a little internal alarm that goes off when we are behaving in a way that goes against how we believe we should be operating in this world and can alert us to the need to make a change to that behaviour. So for example if we are stealing from our employer and we believe it is wrong to steal then the guilt alarm will be going off telling us it is time to change our behaviour and stop stealing.
But when our behaviour change is linked to changing our beliefs about how we want to operate in this world such as learning to say No and changing the belief that you need to always say yes, the guilt alarm needs a reality check. I suggest that if you can honestly say that the behaviour and belief you are changing is life affirming and will make you a more whole and joyful human being (and you can’t be more whole and joyful if you are hurting someone else) then turn off your guilt alarm. Understand that any time you make a change that affects others they may not be OK at first – you may be taking something away from them that they have taken for granted. But in the long run everyone will benefit as you truly understand that you are enough and you may just be leaving a space for someone else to shine.