When you ask someone how they are, 95% of the time they will answer with some version of “busy”, “good, but busy” or even, sometimes, “crazy busy”.
Busy has become a badge of honour, a signifier of success – a humble brag that implies we are important and in demand. But if you really are “too busy”, chances are, you are not saying no enough.
Many of us struggle to say no, fearing rejection, anger or just the uncertainty of what the other person’s response will be. Our people-pleasing is often rooted in childhood. We might have been raised to be a good girl or boy, praised for being “mummy’s little helper”, or we might not have been given enough attention, and so sought it by pleasing others, even at the expense of ourselves. I am a hypnotherapist and one client told me recently that, as a child, she felt responsible for her depressed mother’s happiness. Now, she said, she feels she must say yes to every request for fear of upsetting people. Another client told me that he used to fear his father’s angry outbursts, and would often say yes to avoid getting on the wrong side of someone’s temper.
We can get so used to saying yes and pleasing others that we don’t even know what we want, or what our needs are. But if your life is so tightly packed with other people’s requests that you don’t have time for what really matters to you – or worse, your mental health is at risk – it is time to make a change.
The first step to find the word “no” is to get a little angry about all the time, energy and money you have spent saying yes to things that you could have said no to. How many coffees have you had with people you didn’t want to have coffee with? How many weddings have you been to that you didn’t really want to attend? How many hours of tedious meetings have you sat through when you had no real reason to be there?
You might ask yourself: “What’s wrong with saying yes and keeping people happy?” It might be a hard pill to swallow, but consider this: compulsive people-pleasing can be a form of manipulation. The teacher and author Byron Katie sums it up brilliantly: “It’s the biggest fallacy that ‘I can manipulate you to love me’.” We kid ourselves that we’re just being decent people by acquiescing to others, but things can turn unexpectedly sour when our own needs aren’t met.
In his book The Power of No, entrepreneur and author James Altucher writes: “When you say yes to something you don’t want to do, here is the result: you hate what you are doing, you resent the person who asked you, and you hurt yourself.” When it is coming from a place of subtle manipulation or even resentment, can saying yes when you mean no ever be a good thing?
To start reclaiming your time and your mental wellbeing by saying no more, tune into what it is that you really want. Instead of saying yes on impulse, get into the habit of asking yourself: “Am I agreeing to this for me?” Start with small things, such as when you are offered a drink at the hairdresser’s or if someone asks you for an insignificant favour. Learn to recognise what saying yes and no feel like in your body. Yes might feel expansive, while no might feel contracting; learn to pay attention.
Does the thought of saying no to someone to their face fill you with dread? If you are put on the spot and asked to help with something that you don’t have the capacity for, but you cannot bear to turn someone down, buy yourself some more time. “Ask people to text or email you their request so you can get back to them,” says Vanessa Van Edwards, founder of the human behaviour research lab, Science of People. “It’s perfectly reasonable for you to say that you need to check your schedule before answering.” This allows you to check in with yourself about what you really want, and find the right words (or the courage) with which to decline them.
If you are still struggling to say no, bear in mind what the billionaire businessman Warren Buffet famously said: “Successful people say no to almost everything.” Saying no allows you to say yes to what is important to you. It allows you to be a better person because when you say yes, it comes from a good place, not from resentment or fear. It creates space for what matters most to you, rather than drowning in busyness, like most of us are.
And consider this: if you said no more, what could you say yes to? More self-care, better mental health? More time with your kids? Working on your passion project? Allow the possibilities to inspire your no.