Learning to say no

One thing I’ve noticed about my family is that I tend to be the one who puts the most things on the calendar, in spite of the fact that I abhor leaving the house most of the time. I am the one who has the highest expectations for what we will be able to get done.

I am also the one who, whether I like it or not, who has the most non-family/non-professional related commitments. This is, of course, in part because of my inability to say no, and my inability to set limits and boundaries between where other people end and I begin.

How the pandemic helped sharpen my focus

The pandemic did something amazing: it allowed me, for just a few short months, to cancel everything on my calendar. This secretly made me very happy. There was a lot of stuff on my calendar that I didn’t put there–I had, without ever thinking about it, handed a permanent marker to anyone I had ever met and allowed them to write things on my calendar for me.

I felt like I hadn’t ever chosen anything. I felt like, “If someone asks me to do something, I must say yes.” Whatever was asked of me became an indelible mark on my calendar.

This tendency, I have found, is so ingrained that if someone even suggested an idea of a date, my brain would cling onto it and turn it into an imperative. This is an extreme form of what Gretchen Rubin calls this “The Upholder Tendency”, meaning that once I know what needs to get done, my brain sets to work to do it (even if it is just a suggestion, an idea, a proposition.)

I got to wondering if I had ever, for myself, written something down on the calendar that I wanted to do.

Was there even anything that I wanted to do? (Besides take a nap?)

Give ’em an inch…

With one specific exception, I don’t think there is anyone in my life who intentionally has set out to take advantage of this tendency of mine to turn even a mild suggestion into an imperative. This is why people like me: I am an enthusiast and I make things happen. If they are dissatisfied with something, or need help with something, I will start problem-solving for them. Once this “project” has gotten onto my plate, I won’t let it go until they are satisfied.

This is my fault. My overwhelm is my fault. I just really don’t know where that line is that turns someone else’s problem into my project.

This summer, I need to start figuring that out. Unfortunately for me, the socially awkward introvert, it may mean that I need to be around people in order to start testing the waters.

There is no progress without discomfort

I loved Lost. After all these years, my husband and I still have a shared vocabulary that we use. For example: when we are at the park, we try to always stay in the same place. We are our boys’ Constants and they need to know where to find us. We still hum the different music from time to time when it seems necessary. The light shining into the darkness from the hatch has been a metaphor for years.

Well. Today, I come back to John Locke’s explanation to Charlie about the necessity of discomfort in order to make progress: here is a link to the scene in question. The lesson for me today is that my ability to “say no” will not improve without learning to say no. I will not magically be able to gracefully decline an invitation. I will have to actually decline invitations, awkwardly or gracefully.

During the pandemic, I made some difficult decisions to put an end to a certain number of my commitments. In 2021, I “committed” to making no long-term outside-of-the-home commitments. This gave me the permission to decline several spontaneous offers of employment this year. I know this is not something that most people would celebrate, but keep in mind, this year my priority is my family and my writing. To accept employment outside of the home would be to shift those priorities.

While during the pandemic I was able to clear my calendar of anything I didn’t put there, things have started creeping back on. This is perfectly normal, but also something to which I need to pay very careful attention

There area few things that need to happen:

  1. I need to learn how to say “no” and not feel guilty about it
  2. I need to stop dreading the things to which I say “yes”
  3. I need to make plans to do a few (non-work) things that I love

Goalifying the setting of boundaries and limits

Over the next few days, I am going to look at how I can set specific, measurable goals towards my desire to set limits and boundaries.

Where we stand today, I cannot imagine a life in which I do not dread the things that are on my calendar, in which I am able to say no and not feel horrible about it, or in which I will allow myself to plan to do anything non-work related for fun. Progress is the only option.

Here’s to making some pretty scary progress towards my Ideal Life!

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

3 thoughts on “Learning to say no

  1. Best of luck in your journey. I appreciate how difficult it may be. I am married to a woman like you. She will listen to every word from a telemarketer…. and then Apologize for having baseboard heaters, rather than the ducts that they want to clean. Today in the supermarket parking lot, we were approached by a Bible-thumper offering ‘Salvation’ flyers. I snarled and moved on, only to look back and see her accept one – which she then felt bad about putting in the garbage. Convince yourself that you are allowed to say NO! 🙂


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