Photo by Erin Cho on Unsplash

My Year of Saying “Yes” Taught Me How to Say “No”

Three years ago, I started my own consulting business. At the advice of many self-help gurus, I convinced myself that I should say “yes” to everything — especially things that scared me. I took projects that were out of my comfort zone, started blogging, accepted invitations to speaking engagements, hosted fundraisers, joined non-profit boards, and became CFO of the school district’s foundation. It was all very exciting and invigorating.

It was also completely exhausting.

There is no shortage of successful people espousing the virtues of saying “yes” to everything. Everyone from Shonda Rhimes to Richard Branson has given a TED talk or written an article or even a book on how life-changing it is to push yourself to say “yes” to things that scare the shit out of you. Rhimes credits everything from weight-loss to her love-life to her year of saying “yes.” Now, who could say “no” to that?

For me, the initial result of saying “yes” to everything was incredible success. Everything the gurus had said about “yes” came true, except for the weight-loss thing. We’ll get to that in a minute. But first, the success part — In addition to the amazing adrenaline rush, I found myself speaking about leadership to rooms full of smart women, raising a million dollars for STREAM programs for the elementary schools in my district, hosting fundraisers for breast cancer research, advising a team of doctors about their financial statements, leading a large public company through their first ever acquisition, all while also being a wife and mom. But here is the thing — I did it all at the same time.

Something had to give. And it wasn’t me. I was over-committed and stressed out, and what suffered was my health and my family.

Here is what I learned by saying “yes” to everything:

1. Sometimes, there is immense power in saying “no”

If you’ve ever bought a car, then you know that the most powerful thing to do in a negotiation is to say “no” and walk out. You will learn in that moment just how badly the other person wants to close the deal. And that is when you can ask for exactly what you want, and maybe even get it.

Recently, I was offered a CFO role, but the chairman of the company insisted I commute to LA from San Diego 3 times a week. It is a 2–3 hour drive each way. I told him that this was a deal breaker for me (hopefully for anyone), and suggested he continue his search.

I expected him to stop the interview there, but he kept talking. The interview lasted for another hour, and then he offered me the job. I ultimately turned him down (and agreed to consult instead). See the advice below for more details.

2. Trust your gut

It is important to know the difference between fear and discomfort. At first, I had a hard time distinguishing between being scared of the unknown versus realizing that something was off.

I’ve learned the hard way that if it feels off, it usually is off. It is okay to say “no” to something that doesn’t feel right. Move on.

3. True friends will support you in saying “no”

Often times we say “yes” because we think we’d be letting someone down if we say “no.” But I’ve learned that my true friends respect and support me when I say “no.” There is no guilt or shame. If someone gives you a hard time for saying “no,” you may need to say “no” to the friendship.

The reality is that whatever guilt or disappointment I feel when I say “no” is typically about me, not them. And once I remind myself that it is me who is disappointed, I find it much easier to let it go.

4. The word “no” is not necessarily negative

On the other side of every “no” is a “yes.” When I said “no” to the chairman asking me to drive to LA 3 times a week, I was saying “yes” to having boundaries, “yes” to time with my family, and “yes” to better balance. I was also saying “yes” to the next job that was closer to home.

Saying “no” signals that we respect ourselves enough to be uncompromising about our own needs and desires.

5. When you say “yes” to everything, you are saying “no” to self-care

The year I said “yes” to everything, I found myself sacrificing my time, my family and my health to work-related projects. I gained weight, lost sleep, developed heartburn and high blood sugar. Part of saying “no,” is making sure that you have time for yourself to exercise, meditate and sleep.

The reality is that “yes” came from a place of scarcity for me — the belief that I had to say “yes” because there may not be another opportunity around the corner.

When a friend recently lost his job of 13 years, I told him that he would start getting calls immediately, and the biggest challenge would be turning down that first offer. When we embrace scarcity, we end up saying yes to things that are not right for us. We compromise our own needs, time with family, and the right job, because we fear the right thing is not out there for us at all. My friend said “no” to that first offer, and then found himself with multiple offers just a few months later. He also took time for a much-needed break to be with his boys and travel and rejuvenate.

Lately, a new trend has emerged called “JOMO” — the joy of missing out. In the age of every event published on social media, it is easy to feel like we aren’t doing enough. JOMO invites us to feel content with disconnecting in the interest of self-care. Empowering this new trend, is the word “no.” Or perhaps it is just a “yes” to taking care of ourselves, to boundaries, to embracing abundance and self-care.