“I can’t. I’m sorry.”
To a people-pleasing perfectionist, these words tasted terrible as they floated from my tongue into the air. I could hardly believe this was happening. I, Me, Yo – I just said, um, NO.
Ok, maybe I didn’t actually say the word “no”, but as I spoke to my boss, the meaning of “no” was clear. I had reached my limit. Ninety-hour work weeks, no sleep, limitless projects, tasks, meetings, and people-pleasing. I was done. I was literally working myself to death. Ever heard of lack-of-sleep intoxication? I had it. For almost an entire year, I slept an average of 2-4 hours per night, including weekends. It was horrific. It was like trying to function, make sense, be coherent, stay ALIVE after having ingested tremendous amounts of alcohol (not that I would know what that feels like…). And somehow I was surprised that for almost five of those sleepless months, I had walking pneumonia, my adrenal glands were trashed, and my thyroid function was a disaster. Those were actually the least of my worries as my interpersonal relationships had gone haywire. Off the tracks. Enough was enough. I had a “come-to-Jesus” moment with myself. Saying “yes” was destroying my life. Saying “no” would help me begin to rebuild it.
For most of my life, I have said “yes” to almost everything people have asked me to do, often at a great cost to myself and my family. Driving my all-too-often “yeses” was this underlying belief that if I didn’t perform more, run superfluous errands for other people, go above and beyond the expectations, work myself into the ground for a “purpose”, take on additional projects, and constantly run around doing all manner of “little favors” for others, that people wouldn’t like me. Or worse yet, they might think I was lazy, or stupid, or inept, or incompetent, or complacent, or worst of all…worthless. And because I know these things are not true, I am learning how to say “No”. The more I do it, the easier it gets.
1. Saying yes when we mean no creates a mess for another person to clean up. When we say yes to someone, we commit ourselves to follow-through. And if we say “yes” and we really mean “no”, or we say “yes” and reality dictates no-freaking-way-can-this-actually-happen, we weave a web of trouble that extends beyond our own backyard. The person or thing that we have said “yes” to will suffer. Someone else is depending on you. If you don’t deliver the goods, submit a mediocre product, devote the necessary time to whatever you committed to do, or just blow it off completely, they pay. Plain and simple. This causes a domino effect in their lives, and then affects others around them. Do you really want to be the catalyst for that train wreck? Me either.
2. Saying yes when we mean no pokes holes in our character. In Matthew 5:37, Jesus says, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” Seriously, God knows that we have busy lives and all that, but the core of our character begins to diminish when we become known as “that person”. Truly, we all get busy and things happen. If you have said “yes” and have had a problem with actually doing what you said you’d do, just be honest about it. A simple “I’m sorry” and an explanation will suffice if you’ve made a mistake or really couldn’t follow-up or follow-through. Any reasonable person will understand and graciously accept your apology. But maintaining a pattern of making promises and commitments you cannot keep is just not right, and it’s not God-honoring. It tarnishes who we are.
3. Saying yes when we mean no can change the course of events. Ghandi said, “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.” Anyone remember what happened when Britain and France said “yes” to Hitler? The details might be hazy, but we all know the final outcome. Complete tragedy and devastation. There is a tremendous amount of gravity in our words and in the intention behind them, whatever they may be. Your “yes” may actually have the ability to change the trajectory of someone’s life, and it may not be for the better. Your “no” also wields the same amount of power. We should be wise to remember that our words, our commitments, our “yeses” and our “nos”, are weighty and cannot be taken lightly.
When I said “no” to my boss, I drew a line in the sand. Not long after that, I resigned my position. Not easy. Actually, it felt impossible. But I meant my “no”. So I followed through. I mentioned earlier that saying “no” gets easier, but I still have to work on “no”. It helps to remember that the “no” is not just for me, or because I want to draw healthy boundaries. It’s about me being committed to the things I care most about.
In the end, saying a healthy, well-placed “no” is essential for balanced living. It brings our priorities into check, and gives us the ability to pour ourselves into the things that truly matter. Strength is required to say “no”, but that the end result of drawing those personal boundaries and limits is freedom. And freedom tastes…delicious.