THE BLOG
09/18/2014 12:57 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

What's So Hard About Saying 'No'?

Yiu Yu Hoi via Getty Images

After a long summer of relaxed living and lighter schedules, fall has arrived... and brought with it a renewed intensity, and a rush of new activities, commitments, and if you have children, an ocean of forms, sign-up sheets, and requests that you volunteer for this or that. It's all good stuff, worthwhile stuff, but you don't have the available time or the energy to do it all, so what do you do? Of course, you just say, "No." Simple, right? Not so fast.

The problem is many of us, and I am talking particularly to women here, have great difficulty with this little word. Why is it so difficult to say, "No"? The reasons are certainly many and varied, but there are some truths that apply to all of us, especially to those who tend towards being people pleasers. And while back-to-school season is an easy target for highlighting the need to learn to say "No" to small but time-consuming things, it provides the opportunity to look at the bigger picture and the challenges it poses in life's larger and more significant arenas such as lifestyle and work-life balance and relationships.

"No" is an emotionally loaded-proposition. Think about the ways you have personally said or you have heard someone else say, "No." Do they lead in with a huge apology? Do you give a three-minute explanation (often to a complete stranger) about why you simply cannot do (fill in the blank)? Do you feel guilty? Do you worry others might think less of you? Well, at least you said no and that's a good start.

The alternative to a weak refusal loaded with guilty explanations is that you might back down and say "Yes" when you want to say '"No." Often, feelings that we should do this or that, despite not wanting to, drive us to do too much. Perhaps you think that by doing more you will be well regarded, respected, admired, accepted, liked, loved by your children. Perhaps you think it will give you something back in return. This path usually doesn't deliver on those promises and leads to feelings of resentment, anger, and not being appreciated. And then, what happens? Maybe you conclude you aren't doing enough to make people happy and need to do more, maybe you repeat a story to yourself that you are unappreciated... and the vicious cycle continues.

"No" challenges our boundaries. Boundaries, or more accurately the lack of them, are a very real issue in our society. Still drunk on technology, the 24/7 push of new information and the intrusions into every life moment have brought us to a place where nothing is sacred, nothing is off-limits. There is no place or time or situation in which we can be completely unavailable.

Worse, there are few things that are considered unreasonable, particularly in the inflexible corporate world where work-life balance is concerned. The work-life balance equation, all of the balancing, juggling and adapting is expected to be done on the "life" side. Work hours haven't budged; if anything, they have expanded. The expectation remains come in early, stay late, get no accommodations for long commutes, leave small children in 12 hours of before-care, a full day of school and after care... but please, enjoy the exactly 1.5 hours left for dinner, homework, baths, and family bonding -- the "life" part.

Is it any wonder men and women report feeling more stressed at home than at work? Not because work is less stressful, but because work is getting too much of the pie and the most important part of life is left to live on the crumbs. Being home is overwhelming because there is so much to do in so little time. Where does this lead? Just read the articles about study after study showing that women are facing serious consequences for this pace, for trying to live up to unsustainable expectations. It is time the workplace, and particularly large companies, take responsibility for their part of the problems caused by playing the "economic downturn" card as a justification for ignoring employee needs for far too long. Individuals suffer, families suffer, and our communities, companies, and country follow. It's all related, there are no bubbles.

"No" challenges our resolve. Even for those of you who may be razor sharp on your boundaries, a good "No" can really challenge your resolve to uphold them. This is because to say "no" can awaken fear and emotions you may not want to deal with, which makes saying yes a safer, albeit sad choice. When I set out to change my life for the better after a personal turning point, I made a short list of non-negotiable promises. Yet, I have at times found myself questioning those promises and bargaining with the devil so to speak, arm extended ready to give them away. Why? Simply put, fear. The shoulds in my head have battled it out with the wants of my heart. I have been challenged to decide if those promises were just suggestions and nice-to-haves, or if was I prepared to trust myself, trust my intuition, stand by them, and live by them come what may. Thus far, I have chosen bravely and followed my heart.

In my September newsletter for Lily Pad Wellness, I was inspired by advice I once received from one of my life counselors. It went like this. Practice saying the following three things: "No." "Not now." "No, thank you." That's it, just those words, nothing more. No story, no justification, without guilt, without shame, without anger or blame. Said calmly and with authority, "No" is an extremely powerful word. Use it well!