How often have you screamed that word in your mind as someone (again!) pressured you to give something you didn’t want to give? And even though you could feel your time, money, or attention being sucked away by the vacuum of expectations, the word that dribbled out of your mouth was the same old, wimpy “…OK…”
Worse, you smiled while you said it, even though you were dying inside.
“No” is a complicated subject
It’s not an easy word to make friends with and never becomes a faithful companion unless you’re a sociopath.
Fortunately, complicated is my specialty. “No” isn’t just a matter of getting the word out of your mouth or tattooing it on your forehead. It’s a complex and nuanced topic, requiring multiple strategies and near-daily practice to implement effectively.
But it’s worth investing the time to become a master of the nearly-forbidden word – time you’ll quickly make up by avoiding a weekend of moving your friend’s furniture into his new apartment (again!) or opting out of (another!) evening listening to your sister’s dramatic rendition of her mundane life.
So, I present your comprehensive guide to fully mastering the word “no” in all situations: your secret password into the land of freedom…or at least a little extra free time. And only a little sociopathy is required.‘No’ is the most under-said word in our over-committed world. Click To Tweet
Section 1: The Difficulty of “No”
To be honest, my personal issues with over-commitment have primarily been resolved by my increasing acceptance of my introversion; if you don’t show up to the party, no one can ask you to dance. But it hasn’t always been that way. I’ve battled my own over-commitment monster in the past.
Just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I want to do it for you
I’m a capable person in certain areas:
- I’m a decent writer
- I can build websites
- I know how to run a solo business
- I can tie knots
I like doing all these things for myself.
But. I’m borderline OCD, as I’ve written about here. I can’t stand to see something done inefficiently, sloppily, or incompletely – especially when I know that it’s something that I could do nearly perfectly. And it drives me to distraction when I see people flopping around, not knowing how to get started on something.
So, when someone requests help in one of the areas I’m good at, I don’t want to commit time I don’t have to spare…but all too often I do. And then it begins.
I research. I create detailed plans. I mock up examples of how to do things. I over-commit my scarce time and resources to provide precise assistance because my perfectionism won’t allow anything less. I can’t stand the thought of someone thinking I left something out.
But it’s never enough. Having led a supplicant by the hand to his first milestone, he wants inevitably wants me to lead him to his next one. And all I want to do is chop his hand off and run away. Or my hand, if it will aid my escape.
I know you’ve been there, and likely experienced worse.
It’s one thing to donate your time for tasks; in many instances, you can get them over with quickly and move on. The absolute worst, however, is when your attention is in high demand.
That soul-sucking feeling
Sometimes needy people don’t want you to do something…they just want YOU. For what purpose? Why, to:
- listen (endlessly)
- validate (repeatedly)
- commiserate (incessantly)
You know the type. One of my followers from the U.K. provided some thoughts that described the situation with clarity:
For some reason, the way I listen appears to be particularly rewarding to the type of person (and my God, there are so many of ’em) who needs to talk about themselves ad infinitum. Mostly, they need to talk about their latest pointless crisis, but occasionally, I get one who just wants to tell me how wonderful they are.
I wouldn’t mind this too much except, of course, there’s no return to it. It’s never my turn to talk. This might sound like a common thing that everyone must tolerate to some extent, but it got very bad with me. To the point where I eventually realized that pretty much every friend I have was a transmitter and my receiver capability was being overwhelmed.
Being a good listener is like laying out food for bears; once they get a taste, they’ll keep returning for more.
What’s going on here? Why are some people always the askers, and some are the givers? It’s not a mystery if you consider our evolutionary past.
Hunting and gathering guilt and expectations
Picture the successful tribe, one that is well-fed, reasonably healthy, and relatively uneaten by predators. This state of caveman nirvana came from an intense, committed team effort. You see, humankind in its natural state is almost purely Socialism:
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
~ Karl Marx
Survival in an unforgiving environment demanded that tribal members gave everything they had – possessions, skills, attention – to the other members of the tribe without reservation. That is, if they wanted their share of food and protection from the next saber-toothed tiger that wandered by.
There were no (living) slackers in caveman society.
Since this “giving your all” approach was so critical for survival, over eons, natural selection eliminated anyone from the gene pool who didn’t feel some obligation to contribute.
That explains why you feel awful when you say “no” to a request – somewhere deep in your brain, your inner caveman is admonishing that you’ve just endangered the tribe. Your inner caveman isn’t all that smart, so it lays on the guilt even when the “tribe” consists of your lazy brother-in-law who wouldn’t protect you from an angry housecat, let alone a saber-toothed tiger.
It also explains the human trait of asking for stuff from other people. That dim inner caveman thinks that any nearby human who isn’t trying to kill you must be a member of your tribe, and thus fair game for asking favors.
As with all human traits, guilt and expectations are not equally distributed and can be reinforced by upbringing:
- Some feel quite comfortable asking and aren’t bothered as much by refusing to give.
- Others hate to ask and can’t stop themselves from giving, no matter how much they feel that they are being taken advantage of.
Which brings me to your family.
Families: the ultimate tribe of askers
The closest-knit unit of any tribe, in the remote past or the present day, is the family. Families can generate the most soul-crushing expectations, and for many people, there seems to be no way to escape the obligations.
To reject any request from a family member, even in the slightest way, can cause excommunication – emotional if not actual.
The unstated sentiment that pervades family expectations is often: “you owe it.” It’s not logical. It’s not reasonable. It just is, and there is seemingly no argument of any sort that will prevail if you want to decline.
Families generate tribal obligations at the 10x level. But, never fear: my techniques apply to all situations, including requests based on genetic proximity.
And while we’re on the subject of genes, let’s get one thing clear…
Women have it worse than men. Much worse.
At times, I’ve been somewhat abrupt at asserting my right to be left alone. It’s incredible how often I’ve gotten away with it. When I used to travel a lot for business, I’d commonly refuse to go out to dinner with my coworkers after a day of meetings. My introverted longing for solitude made it easy for me to find the willpower to beg off, and the most pushback I ever encountered was a shrug or eye-roll.
Chalk up one more win for male privilege: the privilege of being a bit of a jerk without consequences.
Try to pull off that trick as a woman, though, and consequences can be severe. Saying “no” or opting out of social activities can detonate like a grenade tossed into a group, and your social standing will be the casualty.
Evolution again. Men evolved skills of cooperation at a distance:
“You go around the big rock that way, I’ll go this way. One of us will scare out the deer, and the other one will stab it.”
Men’s relationships were mostly transactional: In this instance, we’ll do this thing together, but no commitments after that. Cooperation for men usually boiled down to a single item:
- Killing something
But women’s interpersonal relationships evolved to be intrinsically woven through all the members of a group. Their entire lives were an unending series of events that sewed them to the other members of their tribes with layers of unbreakable thread:
- Nurturing all the children in an extended family
- Sharing emotional support
- Cooperating in food gathering
- Anticipating and attending to the needs of others
- Preparing food together
Killing things is easy by comparison.
Exceptions abound, of course. But in general, as painful as “no” can be for a man to say, it’s infinitely harder for a woman to get the word out and walk away, especially if the ask comes from family. And if they do manage to say “no,” the feelings of remorse burn long afterward.
Society doesn’t expect much from men when it comes to nurturing, but women are nearly-universally cast in the role of comforter, supporter, and reliable helper. So, women often must think strategically, and “no” can be as much about anticipation/avoidance as it is about actually saying the word.
Okay. That’s the biological background on why we evolved to say “yes” rather than “no.” Before we rush off and start rejecting all obligations, however, we must consider the consequences.
Section 2: The Consequences of “No”
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but outside of the true-hearted readers of this website, the world is filled with people who need more than they give.
Not everyone, of course. Just everyone you know. 1
So, what happens when you increase your “no” to “yes” ratio? When you stop giving so much of your time, money, and attention?
With friends like these…
One of the most-difficult quests you will ever undertake is the search for real friends. Not transactional friends like the cavemen mentioned earlier; you know, “friends in the moment” but not there for the long term. I’m talking about people you can rely on through thick and thin.
Saying “no” makes this quest even harder. My follower from the U.K. again:
“So, the only solution I’ve found is to avoid people. Which can get lonely.”
I’m not advocating pandering to false friends just so you can say, “I have friends!” And I’m not advocating that you go all Simon and Garfunkel:
I have no need for friendship
Friendship causes pain
Its laughter and it’s loving I disdain
I am a rock, I am an island
All I’m saying is, “everything in life has consequences.” Altering how you interact with others inevitably changes relationships. Many relationships need changing. Just be aware.
The sweet sound of validation
There is another reason “no” is so difficult. This reason arises from the very core of our beings, that place where we assess whether we have value or not. It comes down to this internal line of thinking:
“I don’t want to do it, but I want to be asked.”
Someone seeking you out to gain your attention or help means that they recognize your unique skills and value them so much that they feel you are the perfect person for the job. Or, at least that’s how it feels in your mind.
Being asked – even if only for attention and a sympathetic ear – means that you are valued, that you are wanted, that your life and experiences and personality have meaning; not just in your own mind, but in the minds of other people.
Humans are generally horrible at evaluating their own self-worth without input from others:
- If a tree falls in a forest with no one around, does it make a sound?
- If a person has a skill or a personality trait that no one ever desires, is it something to feel proud of? Or a waste of time?
So, in order to get that validation, there can be hesitation to turn down any request, no matter how unreasonable or unfair, because the “asks” could start to dry up. And then you might find yourself without any assurance that you have value. You might find yourself…unwanted.
Self-confidence that is independent of validation is a worthy life goal but is quite difficult to achieve in practice.
This need for validation sets us up for all kinds of commitments, some innocent, others calculated to one extent or another.
Speaking of commitments…
The no’s you cannot say
You can’t cut off everyone, no matter how skewed their taker/giver ratio is. In particular…
Family, to a certain extent. Families can abuse your commitment. Family members come with differing options for controlling your obligations:
- Your ne’er-do-well brother in law can be ignored entirely.
- Your manipulative parents can be limited to structured situations, often around holidays, and generally avoided otherwise.
- Your own children need your unwavering commitment. Which is a good reason for focusing your family energy as close to home as possible.
People who affect your family. How much do you want to alienate your kid’s friend’s parents? Your kid’s teacher? Shunning them for giving you the daily rundown on their lives when you encounter them on the playground may not be a smart move.
Your boss. Well, duh.
We all have a baseline of people to whom we can’t unreservedly say “no” and who we can’t avoid. That’s just part of existing as a non-hermit. It only means that we must try even harder to exercise our “no” muscles with the rest of the petitioners.
Human decency and the golden rule
How awful would life be if we all hesitated to reach out to the less fortunate? Some people are in a “taker” phase of their lives through hard luck and circumstances…or even bad personal choices. That doesn’t mean that we should entirely withhold our goodwill, time, or money.
As a general principle, kindness and pleasantries should be given generously. And we should pay up front – with time and even money – if the scenario calls for it – and assess how much more of either we want to contribute after the situation becomes clear.
Charitable giving of time and money is never a loss. It’s just a down payment on karma.
Okay. Enough with the caveats. Time to get your head in the game and score some points.
Section 3: Getting Your Head into the “No” Zone
How did I solve my own issues with allowing others to take advantage of me? By learning a few responses, which I’ll get to in Part 2. But these responses were secondary to three critical decisions/realizations/commitments I made to myself:
- I decided that I get to choose the direction of my life, both long- and short-term. Others may influence my direction, but ultimately, it’s my choice to make.
- I realized that how I spend my time is the number one determinant of whether my life will go the direction I want.
- I committed to preserving as much time as possible for myself to use in any way I deemed beneficial.
If you ever want to master the art of saying “no,” then you, too, must go through these steps.
Who gets to define your life?
I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink on this blog about setting your own course through life.
If you don’t have a solid grasp on who you are and where you want to go, the techniques that follow may help you avoid a few unwanted obligations. However, you’ll never truly define your own path.
But if your “no’s” are in service to a determined life purpose, then they will carry the weight of your commitment. Your resolve will be much less likely to dissipate when you encounter resistance to reclaiming your own time.'Life' isn’t just a concept; it’s something that results from how we spend our time. Click To Tweet
A life is built minute by minute. Every minute spent working on someone else’s goals delays your own advancement by the same amount.
We don’t say “no” just for the sake of saying it. We say “no” in service to achieving our own goals in life rather than the goals of others.
That’s not to say that if you turn down an obligation, you must fill that time with something “meaningful.” Even if all you gain from declining a commitment is a bit more time to relax on the weekend, it’s still in service to the long-term goal of deciding your own fate.
If you aren’t sure of your direction, then look around this blog for specific advice on determining your destiny
Video: Revealed weakness – Figuring out why you can’t say “no”
6 minutes, 38 seconds | subtitles available
We’ve covered the philosophical aspect. Now it’s time to come to terms with a harsh truth: you’re going to tell some lies, whether you like it or not.
Shading the truth
Our caveman-ingrained sense of guilt for not helping a brother out affects the language we use when declining to participate. How simple it would be if our society allowed this interchange with no hurt feelings:
Them: “Will you help me organize all my closets this weekend?”
Asked, answered, done. Boom. But…
That simple word “no” stated so plainly is like stabbing a knife into the heart of a conversation and maybe even a relationship.
So, we give a reason that we can’t or won’t because it allows the asker to back away from his request without feeling personally rejected. Providing a reason maintains our relationship, to a certain extent. But it’s a bit of a lie, isn’t it?
It’s social lying, the words we use when telling the hard truth would be too painful for either party. Or, to be frank, when the full truth, plainly stated, would make our own agenda – limiting involvement – more challenging to accomplish.
You are going to have to be okay with a bit of lying. Because, as you are undoubtedly aware, you’re going to do it anyway.
Even Jesus has been accused of a little white lie to further his own agenda, so I can think we safely categorize this as a venial sin rather than a mortal one.
It’s a problematic area, but the non-lying way is just too harsh for anyone without an ice-cold soul to pull off. To help assuage your conscience as we proceed, I’ll try to use the more palatable word “untruth.” Feel better?
There are no easy answers here. Just reality, and masters of “no” don’t flinch from that.
You’ve now achieved your Bachelor’s Degree in putting yourself first. You understand why “no” is such a difficult topic and have an inkling of what’s going to be required to turn your situation around.
It’s time to work on your Master’s. And for that, you need to read Part 2.
What you’ll find in Part 2
I provide exactly what to do in every situation where you need to say “no,” with detailed examples and illustrations. Time to learn the art and science of denial!