The Art of Saying No

There is nothing like a tragedy to put your priorities in order.

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I have long known too many people who do not love what they do, but they do it anyway because of security, or because it is all they know, or they don’t know how to stop. I have always vowed not to be one of those people, that if at any point I no longer loved what I was doing, I would change it. I found out recently that changing it is not so easy. There are times in one’s life where you are not loving everything you do, but in order to stop, in order to change it, you must say no.

With the sudden death of someone very close to me, I was thrust into saying no to my entire life as I knew it. I cancelled all of my clients, I cancelled all of my commitments, and I started choosing very carefully what I did with every minute of my time.

I did this to honour the enormity of the loss, but I also did it because suddenly nothing else mattered — at all. The people I used to spend time with, the activities I enjoyed, even my work to some degree — none of it mattered at all. This was a very strange adjustment for me. I am extroverted by nature, I love helping others, and I certainly love a good party. Saying no was not in my vocabulary, even if it kept me running at full tilt. And really, who needs sleep anyway?! As a matter of fact, Carpe Diem is my favourite expression and has guided most of my decisions. I really have benefitted greatly as a result, enjoying experiences, meeting new people, and discovering many great new things just by saying yes.

Not any more.

Although I don’t think I can ‘will’ the extrovert out of me, I can certainly honour the other parts of me in a much better way. This starts by saying no. Before, I would have automatically said yes, then decided after the fact if it was worth it or not. Now I am much more particular about striking a balance between my work life, my social life, my volunteer life, and the piece that was really missing: my alone time.

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Over the years I have pushed myself to carve out time for being by myself, as I do understand the benefits. I value the time and space that being alone gives me for creativity, and indulging in my favourite activities: writing, or reading a good novel. However, the barrier that typically gets in my way is the anxiety that I feel when I am first alone, or even the anticipation of being alone. I do know that if I push through it, the anxiety will be gone in ten to fifteen minutes. Then I can go on to enjoy the opportunities that this space provides. However, there is always something else that I could be doing with others. The invitations are endless, and I pretty much enjoy most things I do. However, running full speed ahead is not good for my soul. Saying no is.

Although saying no is starting to get easier, it poses a major problem: other people are not used to it. This is why I call it an art. How do I decide when to say yes, and when to say no? How do I deliver my decision to decline in a way that is respectful, and doesn’t cause hard feelings? These things are not easy. Often friends, and even family, are not understanding. They do not get it.

Admittedly on the heels of my recent tragedy, saying no has been easier. Someone told me that a loss of this magnitude gives me a “free pass”, and they were right. Grieving and not feeling up to things, people can understand this. However, this free pass period expires. It is in this next time period that I must stay strong in claiming my new-found right to say no, and appreciate that others will not understand. They will not be okay with the new me, and I have to accept that.

My commitment to myself: I will continue working at the art of saying no in the next leg of my journey. I will remind myself of the benefits of saying no in order to counter-balance either the urge to partake, or to save someone’s feelings. These benefits include more alone time, more time for creativity, and more time to relax and recharge. Time is finite and I want to spend it wisely.

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