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Don't Take It Personally When I Tell You 'No.' I'm Using It On Everyone This Year

01/25/2016 06:30 pm ET | Updated Jan 27, 2016
  • Lena Dunham Actor, Author, Screenwriter, Director and Producer
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

We live in a culture of Yes. The common self-help wisdom is that we benefit from seizing opportunities, embracing the unknown, soaring headfirst into the possibilities presented to us. And this is all well and good: yes, do try hiking in Fiji! And yes, accept a date with that handsome Italian who works at the bar you frequent, even if it might make things awkward down the line.

A well-timed yes can expand our world in beautiful and unexpected ways. But I am writing now to espouse the power of another simple word: no.

In fact, 2015 was my year of no (not as inspiring as Shonda Rhimes' Year of Yes but effective nonetheless) and I plan to make 2016 an even NO-ier one.

I am in YES recovery. Like many humans, many women, I am a people pleaser. Can I be there at noon? Sure can! Will I bring three hundred bucks in foreign currency? Absolutely! Will I also promise to help a friend move, be late meeting them because I also agreed to babysit another friend's sick rabbit, then disappoint everyone in the process? I sure will!

"No" is a word that could have served me well many times, but I didn't ever feel I had the right to use it.

A delightful cocktail of self-doubt blended with the need for constant approval had me convinced that "yes" was the key to my like-ability. Without "yes" what did I have to offer? And so I sprinkled it liberally, and as my obligations built up, so did my resentments, so did my feelings of inadequacy. Nice cycle, that one. (For more on this, see Whitney Cummings' incredible piece on codependency on Lenny Letter.)

'No' is a word that could have served me well many times, but I didn't ever feel I had the right to use it.

It's easy to relegate this phenomenon to our personal lives, and for a long time it remained there. As I twisted on the vine, desperately trying to keep my friends and family satisfied--unable to realize the expectations I was running so hard to meet were expectations I had myself created--I thought of my "yes" problem as exclusive to my personal relationships. After all, work is all about working hard, taking on the challenge. Work is, organically, a place of yes. In the television business we take on too much, race against the clock, do our best on little sleep and lots of caffeine and random bursts of inspiration. Because I had so much shame about the private strings of unanswered texts, broken plans, re-made promises, at work it became my mission to answer every email no matter the hour, agree to every added task, finish the day off by reading a link sent by a colleague rather than a book for pleasure. Even as a boss, I often refused to delegate, instead taking on added jobs for my employees in hopes that they'd be impressed by just how on the ball I was. If there was an extra-curricular writing assignment, I took it.

If there was a chance to run like a maniac from work to a panel, toilet paper trailing from my heel, tea stains on my blouse, I was doing that too. And for awhile, it worked like a charm. A compliment like "you're the fastest email-er I know," or "how do you do so much at once?" was better than a romantic sweet nothing to me. It fulfilled my desire to be seen as unsinkable, reliable. And in the deepest place, lovable.

But we can only pull off a high wire act for so long before gravity does its job. The more my personal relationships suffered, the more I wanted to work. The more I worked, the more work I had to do. Meanwhile, a part of my job involves being creative, dipping deep into the well of experience, leaving time to dream. That had been replaced with a busy iPhone and a to-do list that never ceased to multiply. I wish I could say my bottom was sleeping through my friend's baby shower, or falling in a pothole because I was texting "be there in five" and spraining my knee. But every painful reminder of what Yes had gotten me and where No had failed only pushed me further.

Even as a boss, I often refused to delegate, instead taking on added jobs for my employees in hopes that they'd be impressed by just how on the ball I was.

One night, third season of Girls, I was on deadline, finishing a script, and I found my eyelids growing impossibly heavy. I called Jenni, my partner: "I'll send this in tomorrow. Too exhausted. Sorry."

"I knew tonight wasn't a realistic goal," she said gently.

I grew defensive, listing the range of activities I had already undertaken that night, the pressures I was under, the exhaustion and the bla bla bla--

She cut me off: "And I just wanted you to listen so you could enjoy your night, not place this pressure on yourself. I just want you to be realistic about what you can do and save yourself this stress."

It was a small, empathic moment -- Jenni reminding me that meeting a deadline wasn't the reason I was loved or not loved, respected or not respected, and that life didn't have to be an endless jog to accommodate all the Yes's.

It was a slow process, but a polite "no" soon entered my vernacular. "I can't do it realistically by Friday," or "I wish I could be on that panel but my week is insane," or even "no, I'm not comfortable with this dynamic." And something miraculous happened: my personal life followed suit. I can't be at the birthday party. I don't want to go to laser tag ever as long as I live. I am exhausted. People respond well to honesty, to reality. They understand. And so with those no's, YES sprung back up everywhere. Funny how that works.

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Lena Dunham is a LinkedIn Influencer and this post first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.

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