It’s time to start saying no. Not all the time, of course, but sometimes. Most of us are not so great at saying no to other people (though we are Jedi Masters at saying no to ourselves). Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
Your principal asks you to run an after-school book club on Zoom and you agree (even though it means even more time online than the mind-numbing amount you are already spending, and less time with your own kids. In fact, you’ll probably end up getting pizza on those nights because there won’t be time to make anything).
Your room mom, wants to do a craft involving copious amounts of glue and glitter for the class Valentine’s Day party but doesn’t seem to have a clue about how to share materials in a socially distanced classroom or any sign of a plan for clean up. You agree because you don’t want to upset the parent (who is sure to tell her PTA friends).
You desperately need some time to yourself, so you decide to take a walk. Your neighbor pops out, mask in hand, and asks if she can come along. Now you have to don a mask yourself and make small talk instead of listening to your favorite podcast.
Often, we don’t even see these kinds of situations as a choice. We are so afraid of offending the other person or hurting their feelings that we just go along with whatever they propose.
Or we worry that if we don’t do it, no one else will.
Or, perhaps we believe that our worth is in what we do for other people, not in who we are, and that we will be rejected if we put ourselves first once in awhile.
These thoughts may or may not be true, but often we don’t stop to analyze them and decide if they are valid or worth altering our plans for. We just say yes.
The thing is, you can’t afford to keep saying yes. If you are like most of the teachers I know, teaching during a pandemic does not give you that luxury. In order to make it through this challenging year with your emotional health intact, you need to start saying no to other people and yes to yourself. Here are some tips for saying no.
Commit to Your Own Self Care
Make a commitment to your own self-care and honor that commitment the way you would a commitment you make to another person. Then if someone asks you to do something, you can honestly say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t, I have a previous commitment.” Your previous commitment to watch TV with your spouse, take a bath, or curl up with a book totally counts. No guilt required.
Don't do things for others that they can do themselves
When someone asks you to do something that they can do themselves, they are basically saying that their time is more important than yours. While this may sometimes be true and the other person’s time really does take priority (like when you run copies for your teammate because she had to use her planning time to handle an emergency) it generally isn’t.
In most cases, the other person is, quite frankly, taking advantage of you. Teach the people in your life – your partner, your kids, your students, your coworkers, that you are not available to do things that they can do themselves.
To be clear, I am not talking about the things we do for each other to keep things running smoothly or the things we do for each other because we want to be helpful – I am specifically talking about those people who try to get out of doing work they should do themselves by getting others to do it. For example, when your teammate routinely asks you to run copies for her without offering to do anything for you in return.
This includes things that are not explicitly asked for. Your child probably doesn’t ask you to clean up the puzzle pieces he left on the table. He knows that if he asks, you’ll of course say no and tell him to clean them up himself. But he also he knows that if he leaves the puzzle pieces on the table, you’ll clean them up. By just doing it, you are continuing to say yes to cleaning up after him, and he will hear that message loud and clear.
I know you already know this. It’s parenting 101, but sometimes, we need a little reminder…and sometimes it isn’t your kids who are expecting you to do things they can perfectly well do for themselves. Your time is too valuable to spend cleaning up other people’s messes.
Don't be Everyone's First Go-To
At some point in your teaching career, you have probably had that one parent volunteer who would almost always say yes to whatever you asked. Not only that, she did it with a smile and often did more than was expected. So, of course, she was your go-to person for pretty much everything.
In some situations, it is totally the right thing to do to be that person, like when your job depends on it, or you are dedicated to a cause, or you have a ton of free time. However, when you are already stretched to the limit is not the time to be that person.
Don’t make it easy for people to ask you to do stuff. Don’t act like it’s no problem when it totally is a problem. Let that call go to voicemail. Let people know in casual conversation that you are swamped. You don’t have to be obnoxious about it, but you also don’t have to be a human doormat.
If you are uncomfortable with the whole notion of saying no, if the very thought of it brings on waves of anxiety, then starting small can help you to build this important skill. At this stage, nothing you say no to is too small. It could be as small as saying “No thank you,” when someone offers you food when you don’t want it.
For a awhile, try to be hyper-aware of your thoughts when someone asks you a small yes or no question (Do you want to watch the news tonight? Can you help Tyler with his homework? Can you tell me what I missed in the staff meeting today?) Take a second to pause and ask yourself, “What would happen if I said no?” before just agreeing automatically. Oftentimes, you may still say yes and that’s fine. But just taking a few seconds to check in with yourself might keep you from feeling annoyed or resentful about your choice.
When you get good at small ”no”s, move onto bigger ones. Soon you’ll be saying no like a pro!
Send the Right Message
Even if you know right off that the answer is no, take a moment to think about the message you want to send. If it is, “No not in a million years would I ever even consider that, never ask me again.” then your reply, while still polite, needs to be firm, without leaving any room for negotiation or for similar requests in the future.
If you actually really would like to help or take advantage of the opportunity you are being offered, but just can’t right now, make it clear that you hope they will ask again at a more opportune time.
If you like the project idea, but it just is not a good fit for you personally or professionally, then letting them know that can soften the blow.
Whatever you do, be firm, but also kind. While some folks seem to be constantly wanting your assistance, for others, asking for help is an act of courage.
Consider Giving Alternatives
Of course, you can’t and probably don’t even want, to say no all the time. But, when you do say yes, you may be able to set your own terms, or set some limitations.
It could be changing the timing of a task makes no difference for the other person, but all the difference for you. You could offer to do half the work, require a helper, or volunteer to help with, but not spearhead a project. In most cases, it is in the other person’s best interest to work with you rather than risking outright refusal.
Delay the "No"
If you want to say no and just can’t bring yourself to in the moment, say that you need to think about it or check your schedule. Then you can send a text or email later. This is kind of a weenie-way to go about it, especially if you know immediately that you aren’t really going to think about it at all, but I still think it is better than agreeing to something you will feel resentful about.
And Finally, Manage Your Feelings Around the No
I almost always feel guilty when I say no to someone else’s request. Even when my reasons are sound. I hate to disappoint others, especially people I care about.
I have found two things that have helped me to better cope with these feelings.
First, I remind myself that I am not responsible for other people’s feelings. I made a choice that I am happy with and the other person gets to choose how they want to react. Assuming I wasn’t mean or rude and I did not break a previous agreement or commitment, their feelings are not my responsibility.
Second, sometimes, it helps to talk with the person to make sure you are not imagining things that simply aren’t true. When I say no, I am sometimes sure the other person is thinking all these terrible things about me, or that my refusal of their request has had a major negative effect on their life, or that I have hurt their feeling in some irreparable way. In most cases, none of this is true. It’s just me spinning tales in my own head. A reality check may help.
One nice thing about increasing the number of times you say no is that people get used to hearing it…and sometimes they even stop asking.
Your time and energy are precious. Protect them.
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