Learning To Just Say No

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“No” is such a simple word, only two letters, one syllable, a common utterance from toddlers. Why is it often so difficult to say? I was taught to be kind and generous but not so much how to walk away from situations that feel toxic. During my lifetime I have more often than not been the peacemaker, the person who gives in to stubbornness. I try to get along and sometimes that has meant volunteering to take on projects which nobody else was willing to accept. I literally run from high pressure sales people because once they begin their spiels I am like a prisoner to them, unable to flee from their grasp. “No” is a word that I have had to literally practice using and even now it is one of the most uncomfortable utterances in my lexicon. 

I was an adult with two children and a great job as a teacher when I first learned how to really say, “No.” I was working with exceedingly troubled youngsters who had overwhelmed my mind with sorrow for the conditions that I saw them enduring. They were on my mind twenty four seven and I was doing everything possible to create positive change for them. I became so obsessed with my crusade to help them that I was exhausted and all too often emotionally fragile. It took my friends Pat and Bill Weimer to bring me to my senses and show me that sometimes saying, “No” was the best medicine for everyone. 

They showed up at my home one evening and commanded that I put on my shoes and go with them for a brief respite from my lesson planning and paper grading. Of course I did not know how to refuse even though I mentally considered how far behind I would be if I suddenly left my work. I meekly suggested that we just stay at my home where I might be able to do some tasks while still talking with them but they were adamant that I accompany them to a local restaurant and of course I did not yet know how to deal with adamant commands. 

After ordering margaritas and nachos they got down to business. They told me that they had watched me becoming so emotionally involved with my work that I appeared to be harming my own health. They worried that I was accepting too many responsibilities and getting too personally involved with the tragedies of my students. They urged me to back away just a bit both for my sake and that of my students and family. They reminded me that we give ourselves oxygen first in an emergency on a plane so that we will then be able to help others. If we reverse the order we may pass out and be of no use. 

Bill was a NASA engineer and he spoke of the crew members who had died on the Shuttle during take off. He asked me what I thought NASA would do about the loss of life and then bluntly informed me that every person with be replaced. He reminded me that if I made myself sick attempting to please everyone that someone would step in as a substitute for me. His words hit home in a profound way. 

We have to know our physical and mental limits, our personal situations. Sometimes that means having to turn down requests for our time, money or talents. We should no more stretch ourselves to the point of breaking than we would spend the baby’s milk money on something frivolous that a salesperson is urging us to purchase. Saying “No” can be the kindest thing we might do depending on the situation, particularly when it means being good to ourselves. If we are rested, relaxed and happy we are more likely to have the wherewithal to help others than if we are dragged down with too many responsibilities and worries. 

I’ve learned how to do my part in the ebb and flow of the world without running myself into the ditch. I’ve had to say “No” over and over again when my instincts told me that I was already doing more than enough. I learned to prioritize my time and talents based on the most immediate needs of those around me. Sometimes that meant having to choose where to place my energy and when to just walk away. 

I worked for a principal who literally changed my life by offering me incredible opportunities for growth in my career. He and I were an amazing team and the years that I worked for him were definitely my best. I would have walked over glass for him and I know that he would have gone to great lengths to support and defend me. Sadly we reached a point of going different ways because I knew that I had to say, “No” to one of his last requests of me.

My mother was in the throes of one of her all time worst cycles of bipolar disorder. My brothers and I had worried that she was so sick that we might lose the battle with her illness that we had waged for so many years. I was floundering at work and at home as I attempted to balance my responsibilities. Suddenly my boss asked me to move to a new school and new challenge with him. It would require a steep learning curve and lots of extra effort on my part at a moment when I barely had enough time to keep all of the balls in the air that I was juggling. My mother was in a psychotic state, a daughter was enduring some major physical problems and I was feeling as though the weight of the world was bearing down on me. 

I figuratively put on my oxygen mask and took a deep breath. Once the air filled my lungs I understood that it was not a good time for me to add a new and very different job to my resume. I turned town the principal’s plea that I follow him even as I saw that it hurt him. It was a “No” that I had to say but it was perhaps one of the most difficult decisions of my life. 

Ultimately it was the right thing to do. I had to put my family first and in doing so I ultimately had more and more time for my job. They became healthy again and so did I. If I had pushed myself to please the good man who had mentored me so well I suspect that I would have been ineffective in every phase of my life. I had finally learned the importance of that one little word that is often so powerful. 

We tell our children to just say “No” to temptations and toxic situations without admitting to them how difficult doing so can be. Perhaps in those moments when they are very little and exclaiming their unwillingness to do as they have been asked we might learn to give a little and find out what is making them reluctant. Teaching them how to listen to their instincts might one day save them just as my friends Pat and Bill did with me. “No” can sometimes be the kindest word that we ever use.