I risk revealing my age when I say this, but I was in elementary school when then-First Lady Nancy Reagan introduced her anti-drug campaign. I recall seeing green signs posted everywhere with the campaign’s slogan, “Just Say No!” in bold, white letters. I remember PSAs featuring the First Lady surrounded by school kids screaming what to do if I, on the other side of the screen, were ever offered illegal drugs. People wore “Just Say No” t-shirts, Mrs. Reagan appeared on talk shows, and the message of saying that one, seemingly simple word was drilled into our heads on more occasions than I can remember.
I’d like to credit Nancy and her friends with keeping me off drugs; however, honestly, I have never in my life been offered illegal drugs, so I never even had the chance to say no to that kind of peer pressure. (Thank goodness for that!)
However effective the “Just Say No” campaign was in helping kids resist drugs and peer pressure, it hasn’t done me much good in other areas of my life. How I wish that a bright green sign would pop up any time I’m about to agree to something I don’t want to do. I’m not talking illegal stuff here; I’m not even talking about things that are necessarily bad. I’m talking about learning how to say no when I really need to.
Years ago, I somehow got roped into babysitting the daughter of a coworker of my husband’s. The dad was at work, and the mom needed someone to watch their daughter while she went to an all-day meeting. I’d never met any of these people, so I’m not even sure how it all came about, but I must’ve felt as if their lives depended on me and that their day would be completely ruined if I didn’t step in and help. (Not really.) I’m certain that it came down to one simple reason: if I didn’t help out these complete strangers, even though I was available and perfectly capable, I’d feel guilty.
So, I did what too many of us do—I said yes when I really meant, “Umm…not in a million years!” I had a toddler at home who napped in the afternoons, and I, being both pregnant with baby number two and perpetually exhausted from running after child number one, also napped in the afternoons. I’m also not exactly a kid-person. I love my own, but I’m just not gifted in dealing with other folks’.
To further complicate the situation, this girl, who was probably 10 or 12 at the time, had special needs and severe food allergies. At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about tweens OR special needs children OR food allergies. What in the world had I gotten myself into? Probably the worst thing, though, was that this girl was a chatterbox! Me—not so much. I spent the entire afternoon trying to pretend to listen to a complete stranger’s awkward stories and keep my eyelids open. No small feat. All I wished for was that I’d had the courage to say no to begin with, and then I’d be peacefully napping alongside my one-year-old.
When the mom picked her daughter up, she told me that whatever her meeting was about could possibly turn into a more permanent assignment and asked if I’d be available on a more regular basis to babysit. My original feelings of guilt, although assuaged, had been replaced with a combination of resentment, bitterness, and utter exhaustion, but thankfully, I had come to my senses in the few hours since the gig began, and I somehow found the gumption to politely decline.
Most of us could probably benefit from lessons on how to say no and mean it. How many times do we agree to serve on a school committee we aren’t qualified for simply because no one else will take the position? Or a friend asks us to do a favor that we really don’t have time to do, but we do it anyway because we don’t want to let that friend down? Peer pressure doesn’t go away as we get older; it just changes form. “C’mon…everybody’s doing it” morphs into “But, no one else will do it!” It often takes an experience like my babysitting one to make us realize that we don’t always have to say yes. Sure, there are critical times when someone desperately needs us, and we need to step in and help, but, more often than not, life will go on just fine—for everyone involved—even if we must say no.
I’ve found myself saying no more often in recent years, and I have to say I’m happier as a result. For more than 10 years, I ran a small cake- and cookie-decorating business out of my home. I would agree to make cakes that were way beyond my skill level—and end up crying in frustration—simply because I felt bad admitting that I couldn’t do it. I would agree to make more cakes than I could feasibly handle at one time—staying up way too late, pushing my body to its limit, and missing out on time with my family—all because I couldn’t bear to disappoint anyone.
After more than a decade, though, I felt it was time to hang up the apron. It wasn’t an easy decision—I actually hemmed and hawed over it and prayed about it for more than a year, but it was the right one. My family was being neglected, my body was constantly aching, and I was stressed beyond measure. I know I disappointed many friends and other customers when I “retired” three years ago—and I still get the occasional, “Man, I wish you still made cakes!” comment—but most people understand that I had to quit for my own good and for the good of my family. And…almost as soon as I quit my business, a small writing gig (paying more money for fewer hours of work than the cake biz) practically fell into my lap! Saying no to something good opened up a door for something even better.
Saying no can be hard, but it’s sometimes necessary for the benefit of our own sanity, health, and emotional well-being. Once I got past the initial guilt, I’ve found that it’s becoming easier to say no. I recently joined the board of the local volleyball league where two of my daughters play. I’ve coached in this league for four years, but, for various reasons, I decided to take this year off from coaching. Somehow, though, my name still appeared on a list, and I was assigned as co-head coach of my sixth grader’s team. My husband and a few friends saw the list before I did and barraged me with comments ranging from, “I thought you said you weren’t coaching this year!” to “Yay! You changed your mind! My daughter has her fingers crossed she gets you as a coach again!”
The old me would’ve sighed heavily and just accepted that I was a coach, even though I didn’t want to be. I even wonder if my getting put on the list was just an assumption made by someone that “since she’s done it for years, surely she’ll do it again this year.” The new me, however, hopped on my iPad and emailed the head of the league and told her (politely!) that a mistake had been made, that I had not agreed to coach this year, and that I was taking a break to just be a board member and a regular old parent cheering in the stands. I decided then and there not to fall victim to anyone’s guilt trips, and, surprisingly, I found that hardly anyone tried to lay one on me.
Not long after this incident occurred, I learned that my other daughter’s age group was hurting for coaches. Teams were going to have to be larger, and that meant that each girl would get less playing time. I contemplated volunteering for about 30 seconds before firmly deciding that I would not fall into the “But, if I don’t do it, who will?” trap. No one else volunteered, so my daughter, along with everyone else’s, will have to sit the bench a little more often. Unfortunate, yes, but I am not going to feel guilty about it. If I were coaching, I would be missing out on seeing my other daughters play in their volleyball, golf, and soccer matches, and I wasn’t willing to compromise on that.
Why do we, women especially, feel as if we have to do it all? While I like being responsible and reliable, I got tired of being the one who always said yes but then felt overwhelmed and under-appreciated—giving more of myself to others than to my own family. Now, I try to pray more about whether something—whether it’s coaching a team or volunteering at school or leading a small group—is going to be something that I should give my time to. I also do a much better job at weighing the pros and cons, and sometimes, I just go with my gut. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
I used to think I was good at multi-tasking, and people would even tell me I was “Superwoman” because I seemingly did it all. I wasn’t—on either account; I was just bad at saying no, and I was the person everyone would come to because they knew I’d do whatever they would ask of me. All it made me was tired and cranky, and I wound up doing a mediocre job just to get whatever it was accomplished.
Now, I try to say yes to the tasks and roles that fit with my skills and talents (and available hours in the week!), and I try to strive for excellence instead of just being a “warm body” or just doing it because no one else will. 1 Peter 4:10 says, “God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another.”
I used to feel relieved when I had a good excuse for saying no. Now, though, after more and more practice, I am getting much better at channeling my “inner Nancy.” Even the Bible tells us to “just say no”: “Just say a simple ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t….’” (Matthew 5:37a). You don’t have to make excuses; you don’t have to explain yourself. Just. Say. No.
I know it’s easier said than done, but the more you practice saying no when you mean it, the easier it gets. AND, it opens up more margin for the times when you’re supposed to say yes. If you fill up your life with too many “okay” things or even “good” things, you might miss that really great opportunity when it comes by. Try it. Sure, you’ll probably feel guilty at first, but I promise, you won’t die. And you just might open yourself up for something really great that you can feel good saying YES to.