The Power of “No”

According to my mom, when I was about two years old I discovered the ultimate power word – “No.” If you asked me any question I’d answer with emphasis. “No!” In fact, I sometimes used my favorite two letter word if I really meant “yes.”

“Jill, would you like some ice cream?”


Who doesn’t want ice cream? Most kids go through the “no” phase but mine was pronounced, probably because I’m a bit of a control freak. That word made me feel powerful, even though I had few choices. Then I grew up, gained many choices and forgot how to wield the power of that little word.

Through a combination of helpfulness, responsibility, love and guilt I learned to say “yes” to almost every request. This can be a problem. In a world filled with endless opportunities to give, help and make people happy, I said “yes” without considering the consequences. I’ve discovered that when I say “yes” to one request, it’s often followed by at least five more. It snowballs. It doesn’t help that there’s an addictive satisfaction to pleasing people and feeling needed.

But about 18 months ago I looked at my schedule and felt only overwhelmed, like I’d swum too far from shore and only had enough energy to tread water.  My agreeable helpfulness had choked out almost all of my free time. On top of the typical family obligations my life was filled with deadlines, appointments and commitments that left little room for some of the things I love – like playing the piano, going for a five-mile run, writing fiction or reading a novel for more than 20 minutes at a time.

I wasn’t living. I was drowning.

When I described my frustration to a good friend she said, “You need to put on your ‘No!’ shirt.”

Where can I buy this shirt?!

I didn’t own a ‘No!’ shirt, but it sounded lovely. While I didn’t shirk any of the commitments I’d already made, I decided I wouldn’t answer “yes” to another request for my time and energy until I’d gotten my schedule back under control. I needed to feel the sand beneath my feet. I pulled out the power word and put it on like a life jacket.

Over the next six months I said “no” a lot.

This disappointed some people and frustrated others. They made it clear I was letting them down. They’d come to expect me to say, “yes.” Frustrated people can be very persuasive, using guilt, logic and emotion to get what they want. It was hard and took a lot of resolve to say “no.”

It’s hard to tell the elementary school volunteer coordinator (a.k.a award-winning mom) that you won’t be bringing in a pot of vegetarian chili for the teachers during conferences this year because you have a hard enough time getting a square meal on your own table. It’s even harder to tell your child that she can’t join that club because if you have to drive her one more place your head might explode. All the requests I turned down were for good things, asked by nice people.

After awhile I learned to say “no” without explanation or excuse. It was enough that I’d thought through my schedule, energy, values and limitations. I didn’t owe anyone my rationale. And I learned that a simple, “no” is an effective response that limits rebuttals and add-on requests.

It took about 10 months before my new “no” stance had a visible effect. Sometimes, I wondered if I’d ever get to shore. Then I did. I could feel the sand beneath my feet. I could catch my breath. It was a long, deep breath.

As I look at a new year, I feel like I’m standing waist deep. All those “no’s” have cleared space in my life and I’m ready to say “yes” to something. I’m not sure what it is yet. I’m excited to find out. But when the next opportunity rolls toward shore I’m going to consider the consequences before I swim out to meet it. And I’m taking my “no” shirt with me, like a life jacket.

What are you going to say “no” to this year? What are you going to say “yes” to?

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