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The Power of Saying No

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‘Just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.’ – Seth Godin

Why is it important to not always say yes? When we say yes to everything and do not set boundaries with people, we often feel stressed, overwhelmed, and even burned out. Most of us want to be well-liked and want to please other people. It can be difficult to turn down opportunities or requests that others have made of us. It may also be challenging to set limits with difficult people. 

Here are some tips for learning how to set healthy boundaries.

Practise tuning in to your inner sense of ‘yes’ and ‘no’

The first step in learning how to set boundaries is to try to uncover what your personal limits and guidelines are. We all have an inner sense of wisdom, which intuitively tells us when something is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ The problem arises when we ignore or argue with that inner voice. If you are not used to tuning into your intuition, it is important to practise paying attention to how you are feeling in the moment. Using tools such as meditation and mindfulness is one way to practise paying attention to your thoughts and feelings of the moment.

Learn how to tolerate the reactions of others

When you listen to your own ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ other people are going to get angry or they may get disappointed. Setting boundaries will unleash emotions. The reality is that when you set boundaries with people, they may not always have a pleasant reaction. However, you still can work to firmly maintain the boundaries that you have set.

Setting boundaries with people can actually help to improve your relationships in the long run. If you do not respect your personal boundaries (perhaps in fear of someone else’s reaction), this is likely to lead to bitterness and resentment over time. The people who you want to surround yourself with are those who will respect your boundaries, even if initially they feel upset or disappointed.

Value your time

Know your commitments and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. Be honest when you tell them: ‘I just can’t right now. My plate is overloaded as it is.’ They’ll sympathise as they likely have a lot going on as well, and they’ll respect your openness, honesty, and attention to self-care.

Know your priorities

Even if you do have some extra time (which, for many of us, is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? Be it personal goals or professional goals, do chalk out your priorities. It is all about knowing your long-term goals and what you’ll need to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to in order to get there. 

Practise saying no

Practise makes perfect. Saying no as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. Sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.

Don’t apologise

A common way to start out is: ‘I’m sorry, but…’ as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important when you learn to say no, apologising just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm and unapologetic about guarding your time. When you say no, realise that you have nothing to feel bad about. You have every right to ensure you have time for the things that are important to you. 

Stop being nice

Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you in the process. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. However, if you erect a wall or set boundaries, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.

Say no to your boss

Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss – they’re our boss, right? As if we start saying no, then we look like we can’t handle the work – at least, that’s the common reasoning that is put forth.

In fact, it’s the opposite – explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardising your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him or her to re-prioritise, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.

Get back to you

Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, try saying no this way: ‘After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.’ At least you gave it some consideration.

Maybe later

If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say: ‘This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].’

Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.

The bottom line

Saying no isn’t an easy thing to do, but once you master it, you’ll find that you’re less stressed and more focused on the things that really matter to you. There’s no need to feel guilty about organising your personal life and mental health in a way that feels good to you.

Remember that when you learn to say no, isn’t about being mean. It’s about taking care of your time, energy, and sanity. Once you learn how to say no in a good way, people will respect your willingness to practice self-care and prioritisation. 

‘It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much.’ – Steve Jobs

Trishna Patnaik is an art therapist and healer. She works with clients on a one-to-one basis in Mumbai.

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