Monday, April 25, 2016

The Art and Grace of Saying NO

I had the pleasure of giving a talk last week to a group of women at a Women's Empowerment Summit in New York. Here are some excerpts:
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What is does it really mean to say “no”?

It’s about setting clear boundaries. Boundaries are fundamental for keeping us safe and supporting our well-being. We learn as we are growing up and teach our children - stranger danger, what is inappropriate behavior by adults and other children, to stay away from other children who are not good playmates. We hope that we (and our children) learn how to keep ourselves safe and well.

Two year olds learn to say “no!”. If there is something they don’t like, they scream NO, and it helps them to feel powerful and able to set limits. It is the natural foundation for establishing independence and autonomy. Saying “no” establishes boundaries and gives us power.

So why, as adults, are we afraid to say "no"? Why do we think we don’t deserve to protect ourselves? Or like we have to take on everything that is asked of us? Because whether it is biological or socialized (or perhaps a mix of both), women in particular are more likely than men to be “people pleasers”, and we do not want to disappoint. Saying no feels too much like giving up someone’s approval - we don’t want to lose the client, feel rejected, or be disliked. However, not saying “no” once may feel like a small thing. But over time, not saying “no” becomes a habit, which is a major problem.

When we say yes when we really ought to say no, we allow our boundaries to be invaded, making the other person more important than ourselves. It also diminishes the value of the things we truly WANT to say yes to. To truly give generously, one must have good boundaries.

When setting boundaries:

Be clear about your limits – allow no one to make demands on you, only requests;

Discomfort is a signal of an attempt to invade your boundaries. You know it even if they don’t. Do not say yes under these conditions. Say no and mean it;

Exercise your freedom of choice – if you take on another’s troubles, you probably aren’t free to make choices in any part of your life.

When you do not have tight boundaries, you risk compassion fatigue and burnout.

Compassion fatigue and burnout can occur when we engage in emotionally challenging work, but do not sufficiently protect our own boundaries or replenish our energy at the rate that we expend it. Some experts suggest that people who are attracted to caregiving work are already compassion fatigued.

Accepting the presence of compassion fatigue in your life only serves to validate the fact that you are a deeply caring individual - that’s the good news. However, somewhere along your healing path, the truth will present itself: you don't have to make a choice. It is possible to practice healthy, ongoing self-care while successfully caring for others.

How to Say NO

Be willing to have the courageous conversation if needed to reinforce your boundaries. We have to TEACH others how we want to be treated.

Here is my cheat sheet with some examples of how to say no gracefully:

“I wish I could, but it’s just not possible right now. Thank you for thinking of me.”

“I hate saying no to you, but I really must this time.”

If you don’t have time now but might want to say yes some other time:

“I’d love to help you with this, but I just don’t have the time. Please let me know next time this comes up, and maybe our schedules will be a better match then.”


“I would like to help, but I’m already over committed. How else might I support you?”

Where do you need to say no right now?

Refrain from explaining yourself. You are entitled to say no without having to justify it.

If there is something you’re willing to do, say yes, but choose wisely.

What are you are willing to do and can do gracefully, WITHOUT RESENTMENT?

"'No' is a complete sentence." ~Oprah Winfrey

Halona Patrick Shaw, LCSW, JD
Board Certified Life Coach
Eyes Turned Skyward, Inc.
(917) 846-7784

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