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If NO is such a good thing to say, why is it so difficult?

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the importance of saying no.

I haven’t been actively seeking the topic, it just keeps coming into my world.

Pretty much everyone seems to agree that you have to say no to a lot of good stuff to achieve more, be happier, maintain balance in your life, etc. etc.  Michael Hyatt, a self-confessed recovering people pleaser, had a great podcast recently on “How to say No without feeling guilty.”

Of course, this isn’t a new concept at all. Zig Ziglar (or John Maxwell depending on who you source) often said “Sometimes you have to say no to the good so you can say yes to the best.”  Jim Collins, in Good to Great, expanded on the concept by stating that we often settle for good and don’t pursue greatness.

More recently, Greg McKeown in his book Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less, extols the virtues of saying no to most everything and only say yes to the most essential things (and as he defines it, almost everything is non-essential). Other examples are legion: Urgent versus important,  prioritize your goals, focus on one thing, and so forth.

I agree with most of what everyone is saying. And, I must confess that I too am a recovering people pleaser. Over the past decade (maybe more) I have been working on saying no more often and I still stink at it (some of us in recovery take longer than others, don’t judge).

Quite honestly, I have said yes to so many things in the past few years that I get completely swamped trying to meet all the obligations and commitments I’ve made.  And, unfortunately, I can be late in fulfilling those commitments (and yes, there are times where I don’t meet them at all).

In fact, my overcommitment has reached such a high level, that just a few days ago I had to say no to something I really wanted to do. For me personally, it would have been choosing something that was in many ways “best” over some of the good stuff I had already to committed to.

It KILLED me to say no.  Ultimately though, I had to say no because I have said yes to so much in the past few years that there was no room left.  I felt guilty about it despite the podcast and I tried for a week to figure out how to fit it in and change my answer to yes. I knew that my No was the answer I needed to give, but it wasn’t the answer I wanted to give.

So that raises the question:

Why is it so difficult to say no?  Let’s be honest here. With the notable exception of those folks who are solely focused on meeting their own needs, most of us struggle with saying no at various times.

And at the same time, most of us would also agree that we can get ourselves into trouble because we don’t say no often enough.

 The Desire to Please

In my work as a psychologist for the past 15 years, I’ve found one major reason why people don’t say no.  It is as simple as the desire to please.

I am convinced that this is the number one reason we don’t say no when we should.  While you may object that this oversimplifies the matter, I have found that as my clients and I start digging into why they said yes to something they now regret, time and time again the need to please is the hidden culprit.

I am not saying that other factors don’t come into play.  Of course they do.  But let’s face it, when someone asks you to do something, your initial response is often, “I want to help.”  After all, if they didn’t need you, or something you could provide, they wouldn’t have asked.  In other words, they have a problem, you hold the potential solution to their problem, and if you say no then they still have their problem and now you feel in some small way responsible because you could have provided the solution they needed.

In addition, there are lots of reasons to say yes.

If you say yes, you don’t have conflict with the person asking. You’ve made them happy and they will like you.

If the person is your boss and you say yes, then they will reward you, maybe with a raise or promotion.  If the person works for you and you say yes, then they will feel valued and cared for.

If you say yes, you won’t miss out on something that might be really cool.

If you say yes, the world will be a better place!

Except it won’t….

Ok, maybe it will, no one can really know for sure except in hindsight, and that, however, is not the point.

The point is that saying yes is soooo much easier than saying no.

So why say no at all?

Because of this simple fact.  Every Yes costs you the one thing that cannot be replaced.  That one thing is your time. The only thing you can do with time is manage it. You can’t make more time, you can’t store up time to be used later. And, even if you were the most efficient, best life hacker in the world, at some point you reach the maximum capacity that you personally can handle in the amount of time allotted to each of us.

So, in order to better utilize the time we are given, we have to learn how to say no (with less guilt).  In future posts, we’ll talk about how to improve our ability to say no, as well as how to know what to say yes to and what to say no to, so you don’t get forced to say no to something that would be really great for you.

For now, focus on noticing how often people pleasing is at the root of your yeses. Look at the things you’ve said yes to in the past month and see how many of them you should have said no to but didn’t so you could avoid the discomfort of saying no.

And if you have any of your own stories, share them in the comments.


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