What's the Magic Word?

No! It's a pretty scary word, right? It certainly is for me. It's like a well-placed "boo!" bursting through the darkness from an unseen corner. In fact, I find "no" so scary that that I often have difficulty saying it, and that's just where my problem begins.
11/09/2012 09:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

NO! It's a pretty scary word, right? It certainly is for me. It's like a well-placed "BOO!" bursting through the darkness from an unseen corner. Or "self-assessment tax return" around April time. "No..." ARGH!

In fact, I find "no" so scary that that I often have difficulty saying it, and that's just where my problem begins.

In my last blog, I wrote about people-pleasing; that strange, almost inexplicable desire to please those around you in an attempt to build self-worth and self-esteem. Well, I would say that the fear of saying "no" to people is the mechanics of people-pleasing. Not cultivating my no-response has led to an out-and-out fear of ever saying no to anybody. I'm scared of coming off as mean-spirited or being thought of as someone who lets others down. That's an awful lot of power being given to one tiny, two-letter word... "no."

In the past I have had a tendency to say "yes" to an awful lot of things.

"Sure, I'll go out this weekend." "Yeah, I'll help you out with that!" "Okay, I'll stay late."

Sound familiar? And it's often the case that I'll not have the money to go out this weekend, or the time to help somebody out with a project. And let's be honest here, sometimes I just don't have the inclination to do something -- but oh my! It's just simply too socially awkward for me to navigate around a "no," so it looks like I'm signed up. For me, not using that tiny little word has a huge impact, and I am transformed into a people-pleasing burnout.

Compounding this habit is the fact that we live in a culture where people often refuse to take no for an answer; there are some individuals that are adept at sniffing out people who have a problem with "no," pushing their foot hard on the pedal and wearing you down until you feel that there is no other option than to say yes. Cheers, guys!

But really, as with most important things in life, the onus is on us. There are always going to be people who push and push for a yes. So what we have to master is the art of the strategic "no."

Maybe you're like me and you're afraid of seeming rude or disappointing people. Or maybe you're afraid to miss out on something, that if you say "no" you'll be out of the loop, forgotten about, never to be included again (I can be partial to this line of thinking, too!). Perhaps you like to be seen as the go-to gal or guy, someone that gets stuff done, no matter the size of the task. And it's possible that you believe that to consistently give is a part of your spiritual practice, that it's a manifestation of compassion.

But I believe that acting with compassion in life is about balance. Sure, if you say no too much then you close yourself in; you become small and shrink away from life. But if you continue to say yes indiscriminately then life becomes very tiring indeed. It stops being something you participate in and instead becomes something that drains you. You resent those around you, and even life itself, for its constant demands. And that is no way to live.

So maybe "no" can be compassionate. We have to learn to be ruthless and strike a balance. Learn the ability to say no like the skill it is, refine it and make it part of the way we engage with the world. If we see saying no as a compassionate act then we can learn to apply it. If we're unable to give to somebody what they truly need, but we're saying yes out of a tired and resentful sense of duty, then maybe the compassionate thing to do is to say no. Admit it!

"I can't help you because I'm too tired/I can't afford it/I'm not invested in what it is you're asking me to do."

It's better that they find someone who is invested instead of you half-assing it for fear of looking bad. And compassion has to be ruthless for us to engage with people fully and to offer ourselves to life in a meaningful way.

Yoga star and wellness expert Sadie Nardini talks beautifully about the topic in this video, speaking to the Omega Institute about harnessing the power of no to strike a balance in your life.

We have to learn to say no more. It's a fear that is so necessary to defeat if we want to take back our lives and assume control of the ship. To become more fearless, we need a set of skills that help us to overcome those old unhelpful patterns that have gotten us to a place of stagnation through fear, and saying "no" is one of the most basic and intrinsic.

If rudeness is what worries you, then think on this. Rudeness and "no" often have more of a relationship of delivery than intention. Just say it and say it nicely, politely. See how it feels, how it sits. You'll probably feel a little uncomfortable, unsure of yourself the first couple of times. Hell, I know I do! But that discomfort? That's growth, baby!

And don't forget, we have to give people credit enough to be able to hear it, instead of pussyfooting around the issue and thinking we're doing best by them. We're not, we're just being martyrs, and nobody remembers a martyr until they're dead.

So, let's skill ourselves up in the art of saying "no." And not just any old "no," oh no! The compassionate and necessary no. Style your existence into something authentic, don't just let other people happen things upon you. Apply it when it needs to be applied and become the artist, the craftsman, of your own life.

For more by Kathryn Lamble, click here.

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