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Putting Our ‘Yeses’ on Hiatus: Learning How & When to Say ‘No!’

April 28, 2017 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

It’s rare for us to say “no.” Both of us were brought up in households where we were taught to please. Don’t make waves. Girls are conciliators. Girls are collaborators. (However, we never had a problem saying “no” to smoking or drugs, thank you very much Nancy Reagan.)    

Being good girls became ingrained into our psyches. Even after we married and had kids, we almost always said “yes” when asked to do something. As energetic, helpful people, our tendency was to respond to any request by saying, “Sure I can do that.” And if we gave a rare “no,” we tended to start with a typical woman’s reply, “Sorry, I would love to but…” 

Why sorry? What is it about women like us that we feel the need to apologize? Do we have wimp or people pleaser stamped across our foreheads? Why do we constantly meet everyone else’s needs before our own? 

We always take on too much. Often twist ourselves into a pretzel to do everything that’s expected. If we say “no,” we feel we’ll disappoint others. They won’t like us. One of our kids at 30 years old can’t find time to buy a wedding gift, so we do it for her.  Invited to a dinner party, we must write a wonderful thank you note longhand and mail it. No email here; our mothers would be appalled. Refuse an assignment; we won’t be asked to write for that publication or website again. We pile on more work. Refusing to take a stand puts us at the risk of sacrificing ourselves and our limited time, which can cause unmitigated stress. 

Of course, there are the times when it’s healthy to say “yes” even if it impinges on your time. When someone has an emergency and asks you to drive them to the hospital. There’s been a flood and help is needed whether sending a contribution or volunteering. A family member with a problem needs to vent on the phone. A good friend loses a spouse and asks you to help arrange the Shiva. 

The topic of how and when to say “no” came up in conversation when Barbara told Margaret that she had turned down three social engagements and a face-to-face meeting with an old friend who was in New York City visiting. She hadn’t seen the woman in years, but it was inconvenient for her to drive into the city that day. She had too many obligations, appointments, and deadlines. “I can’t believe I said 'no,'” Barbara said. In another situation, Barbara was asked to come into New York City to pose for a photo to accompany a story in the New York Post about our current co-authored book. She turned it down. “I can send you a photo instead or you may send a photographer upstate,” she suggested. And she was proud of herself for taking a stand. 

There are very few canvassers or charities asking for donations that Margaret feels she can refuse, or a telemarketer whom she cannot politely listen to and say, “I don’t do this over the phone. Send me the material in the mail.” Saying no upfront isn’t a phrase that rolls off her tongue easily. If someone wants to come over, she’s reluctant to turn them down even if it interrupts her work schedule. Someone asks, “Would you mind looking over this piece I wrote and add your suggestions when you have time? Certainly,” she says. An editor emails; “I need a story about thus and so and it’s due by the end of the week. Of course,” is her standard reply. When her son who lives in town needs chicken soup if he has a cold or someone to watch his cat, guess who he turns to as a reliable source to say “yes,” despite the fact that her days are packed with assignments and obligations. 

Barbara is on call 24/7 with her work. She also rents out her house periodically and scrambles to get it ready for the next renter. At the same time, she juggles time to cater to her 97-year-old mother whether it’s taking her to the dentist or doctor or driving back and forth from her home in upstate New York into New York City to pick her up for the weekend or a holiday. And she also cooks for her home and "packages" the food in small containers so it's easier to use. These various part-time jobs have to be squeezed into her full-time work schedule. And, of course, she needs time to chill, have a social life, to spend quiet time with her beau, her children and friends.   

Let us clarify one thing, we like to be busy. We thrive when busy. We do busy well.  But enough! Our “yeses” have become a moving train and almost a wreck. So, we have come to the realization, especially as we get older, that we just have to slow this train down. Here are some suggestions:

  • Take out the legal pad and make a list or do an excel spread sheet that catalogues all you have on your plate. Ask if you have extra time to spend on this or that activity. And when someone makes a request, check the list to see if it’s feasible to schedule it in. It’s about finding a happy balance.
  • Schedule blocks of time each day to spend on email and social media. Set aside time with an aging parent, a partner, a kid, and most important, time for you.
  • Compromise when asked to do an activity. Respond simply. Say, “I can’t co-chair the event, but I’d love to help make calls from home to ask people to come.” That cancels out the guilt of a flat refusal. Tell your child who can’t pay his rent, “I am so sorry you can’t pay it this month. I can lend you the money or you can take on an extra project for me to earn extra cash. I need someone to manage my Facebook. Your assistance here would be invaluable, and I’ll pay you for your expertise.”
  • Turn the ringer off on your phone. Or sometimes put it on airplane mode and don’t answer the door when working.
  • Smile politely. You don't have to engage in every conversation with a canvasser at the grocery store if you don’t believe in the cause, or if you simply want to be lost in your own thoughts. Learn to walk away. 

Today our mantra has become: Just say no. As a result, our many “yeses” are reserved for what we believe we have time for. And we're learning to banish the "I'm sorry," too.




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