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In the Whirled: The power of 'no'

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 15 2014 5:05 a.m. MST

In our "yes" culture, we need to set our own parameters and harness the power of "no."

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At the beginning of January, our family reviewed our goals from last year.

The entire family burst out laughing when I read my first goal of 2013: Do less.

My son even patted me on the shoulder and said, “Well Mom, maybe you should try that one again in 2014.”

Years ago, my husband gave a slim volume called “The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It — and Mean It — and Stop People-Pleasing Forever" (McGraw-Hill, 2005).

I was grateful for the book. So grateful that I slid it on a shelf and let it gather dust for three years before finally pulling it off this past week. I’ve decided to follow my son’s advice. This year is the year of "no."

I realize this is a touchy subject. We are a "yes" culture. We are taught to be capable of anything. Our symbol is a beehive, a place of unrelenting action and work.

Our churches and communities wouldn’t last long if it weren’t for the willing volunteers. We need people to answer that call, move that furniture, run that charity and decorate that bulletin board. We need more people who say "yes."

But if you’re part of a certain subset, you find yourself saying "yes" over and over again, to tasks that leave you overwhelmed, commitments you may dread and duties you resent. That’s when it’s time to be selective. It’s time to say "no."

We stand in awe of the men and women who juggle the job, the children, the children’s activities, the community involvement, the hobbies, the book-writing, the side business and the exercise. When do they sleep? When do they floss their teeth? How do they “do it all?”

If we compare ourselves to those who, like Atlas, seemingly balance the world on their shoulders, we will run ourselves ragged. I think we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of "how," we need to be asking, “Should men and women do it all? Should we, you and I, do it all?”

"No" is a liberating word. "No" is what gives us parameters, sets boundaries. As school-age kids, we’re taught to "Just Say No." We role-play for that moment when some thug comes up to us at the playground fence and asks, “Wanna try some of this highly illegal and yet highly addictive drug?”

As a kid, I itched for that real-life moment to play out. I would be so good at saying "NO!" I had an entire speech prepared about the destruction of drugs to the body and soul. I would deliver it with passion, then turn on my heel and walk away. "No" would set me free.

Well, my moment to shine never came. No thug ever offered me illicit drugs at the playground fence. Instead, I’ve been offered the highly addictive drug of volunteerism, that people-pleasing substance that keeps me coming back for more. I find it nearly impossible to walk away.

Why do we keep saying "yes"? For starters, we have the idea that only we can do the job, and do it well. Yet as my husband reminds me when I’ve volunteered for another school/friend/church commitment, every time we say "yes," we rob someone else of the opportunity to serve. Plus, we perpetuate the self-serving idea that we are the only one fit for the job.

The other reason? We really like being involved. To feel needed is a wonderful thing. Yet, if it leaves us feeling overwhelmed and resentful, then it’s time to set boundaries. Every time we say "yes," we displace something else from our lives. We can’t do it all. What are we setting aside in order to say "yes"?

In “The Book of No,” Susan Newman recommends taking a pause before saying "yes." Take a few days, if needed. Go to a third party and ask what we should do. Look at the calendar and see if it’s feasible. Ask yourself: “Will the world crumble at my feet if I say 'no'?”

She also recommends we role-play and practice saying "no." In fact, most of her book is scripted answers to help us through "no" situations with family, co-workers and friends. She puts us right back at that playground fence, right back to that enticing drug.

We have the opportunity to be our most authentic selves, to harness our talents and energies in the most efficient way possible. The happiest and most successful people I know don’t “do it all.” They define their limits and stick to them.

They say "no," then in the most polite and measured way possible, they turn on their heel and walk away.

Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minn., and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com. Her email is tiffanyelewis@gmail.com

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