Julie’s Life Rule #1: No Is The New Yes
When I was about eleven, I started carrying around a legal pad the size of my torso, interviewing people about How to Live.
As in, how do you do know how to do this thing? Exactly?
It only took me about fifty years to learn that everyone has to figure that out for themselves. But we can help each other, right?
We can try to force our lessons on others, can we not?
Which is why, when I started this blog last spring, I promised to be your personal columnist, mostly by butting into your business.
So now that we’ve discussed death, weak abs, the meaning of life, Impatient Chef cooking, losing weight for good, college touring, my love triangle with Bruce Springsteen and other weighty matters, let’s get down to my opus: my life’s obsession about life, which I will deliver randomly over these next few months.
Julie's Life Rule #1: Learning to Say No Without It Killing You
There are some people, when asked to do something they don’t really want to do, simply say no.
They are not governed by the evil twins of guilt and obligation, and we will try not to judge them for the sociopathic aliens that they obviously are.
Let’s take my friend, Claire. Claire is a wildly creative, loving and generous human being who has zero trouble saying no to anything not fully aligned with her desires, values or schedule.
Fellow co-dependents/middle-children/Jews/Catholics, listen closely as I tell you how she does it. With these five foreign words: “That doesn’t work for me.”
So when Claire’s co-worker asked her if she would co-direct a new project? “Oh, I just told her, ‘I’m sorry, that doesn’t work for me.’”
“But don’t you have to give a reason?” I cry, my eyes wild with the anxiety that she does not feel.
“No,” she says with a puzzled look. “I just tell her that I’m sorry but it doesn’t work for me. Why do I owe her an explanation?”
(Um, sorry, what? This was Esperanto to me. Like, is there really an option other than explaining and apologizing for eternity?)
I have another friend named Brenda. She declared 2019 her “Fuck-No Year.”
For Brenda’s entire life, she’s said yes to most every opportunity and amazing idea she has had for entrepreneurship. As a result, she’s achieved tremendous success in business, employs scores of people and has made a lasting and material impact on a world that she’s built with her vision, intelligence, ingenuity and leadership.
But this year, Brenda has set her sights on the hardest goal of all: having the discipline to say “No” to building, building, building one part of her life — and “Yes” to the quiet and private resolve of taking care of herself.
Her report? “Nine months into my ‘Fuck-no’ year, I have learned to say NO more consciously, spontaneously and intuitively––without second thoughts or regret. I have learned that when life intervenes and requires me to change course, going with the flow––without resistance––is another form of care.”
Many of us get to the point of wanting to gouge our eyes out over one more demand, one more schlep, project or social engagement we don’t want to do but feel like we should––we should!––so we do.
But here’s the thing. When you say yes to something that you don’t want to do, you are giving your time away. And what you’re telling yourself in giving that time away is that the feelings of the person asking you for something matters more than you do.
Most of the time when I give my time to something I don’t really want to do, it’s because I feel so uncomfortable saying no. I feel badly. I don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings who is extending themselves to me, or inviting me to join something, or asking me for my help or time. How can I say no?
Then my therapist informed me of something revelatory: “You know what? You are not indispensable. If you say no, sure, maybe that person will be disappointed in the moment, but they’ll get over it and find someone else. You are not that important.”
I am not that important? This was great news. It also embarrassed me to realize how I was overvaluing myself in these interactions—like, get over yourself! No one cares that much what you do or don't do.
So I started small, and it was highly uncomfortable. It felt downright scary to say no, to tolerate what felt like another’s disappointment or dismay or disapproval. It also felt scary because we live in a society where being over-booked is the norm.
There is great status in being busy. For me personally, there’s a worse seductress: the comfort and reliability of a dopamine pump running my life, the constant positive feedback that arises from saying yes yes yes.
But when you default to yes in opposition to your true desires, in order to avoid those uncomfortable feelings, you pay a dear price.
You never have the time to land. You give up the freedom and mental space to spend––or maybe even learn how you really want to spend––your time outside of work and other true non-negotiables.
So I remind myself, before signing up for a commitment of any kind, be it a project or event or charitable cause or new social connection:
Time is our greatest gift, our most precious resource—and it is not renewable. Our life is made up of our time and the choices we make in how we spend it.
So stop giving it away. Stop behaving like it’s infinite, because it’s not. Stop acting like it isn’t valuable and yours, because it is. Instead, treasure your time. Give it only to the work and people and causes and activities that matter most to you.
Over time, I find it gets easier. And something great starts happening. You develop a new respect for yourself and your time, deep inside. You learn to value your own feelings and preferences as much as you have always so easily valued everyone else's. You learn to tolerate discomfort in service to your own needs.
But this is a muscle, and like any rule or habit that has the power to change your life, this one takes practice. And more practice. And more practice.
But it’s so worth it. Because pretty soon, you’ll see: the more you say no to everything that doesn’t resonate with your soul, your mind, your schedule or your heart, the more space and clarity you’ll have to say yes to the things that do.
And that’s the yes to your life that’s worth the work.