With all props to Sir Elton John, it's been my experience that No -- not Sorry -- seems to be the hardest word. For now I'll set aside my well-deserved reputation as an overapologizer (that's a post for another time) and focus on my quest for the ability to say no without, well, saying I'm sorry.
I'm a recovering people-pleaser who was raised by an accomplished people-pleaser. I'm not sure I ever heard my mom tell someone no when they asked her to do something. It's amazing what kids learn by watching the adults around them without anyone ever saying a word. Observation led to emulation, and my behaviors of caregiving, mediating conflict, and finding ways to be helpful were met with positive reinforcement. It's not all bad; to this day, service to others is one of my core values that guides my decisions and behavior. It becomes problematic, though, when all the yeses I say to those around me result in my habitually saying no to myself.
Why is such a small word so hard to say? For me, I think part of it is that I simply let yes become my default response. "Hey, Loretta, can you help me with something?" "Sure! (Wait, what did I just agree to do?)" When yes becomes your default response, saying no can feel really harsh or mean. And when you start saying no to people who are accustomed to your automatic yes, they can react in a way that reinforces that feeling. It's a tough cycle to break, but like anything else, it's a skill you can practice.
In my case, it took almost losing myself in the midst of taking care of everyone else to decide it was time for a change. If you're at that point, I promise it's never too late to start practicing changes. If you're not at the point, that's great! I hope you'll take a moment now to check in with your relationship with saying no. Are you saying yes when you want to say no, or saying yes and then regretting it? Are you saying "the dirty yes" where you agree but then you're resentful and possibly unpleasant to the people around you? Believe me, there have been times in my life when I was the queen of the dirty yes, and it's a hard place to be.
As we enter the end of year/holiday season when it seems we're bombarded with requests for our time and attention, I invite you to pause and consider the quality of your yes before you answer. If it's not an enthusiastic yes, ask yourself why you're considering saying yes. No can feel really uncomfortable to say, and at the same time it can be the kindest answer to both the other person and to yourself. I'm not saying it's easy, and you're going to get it wrong sometimes because you're human. The good news is that it's a practice just like anything else, and every moment is a chance to begin again.
I once heard a lawyer at an end of year continuing legal education program say that every holiday season he gave himself the gift of firing a difficult client. My holiday invitation to you is to identify one of those things you say yes to -- the one that gives you a feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach -- and give yourself the gift of saying no.
Hungry for more? Check out our new on-demand course, Small Bites: Saying No.