“When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.” – Paulo Coelo.
“Mommy, can we make cookies for my friends in class at school,” my son asked.
Something that can get in the way of me finding rest or having time for the things I really want to do is not knowing how to say no. I personally find it especially difficult to say no when my reason to decline is simply that I want some time for rest or space in my schedule. To me, it doesn’t feel justified to decline someone else (especially my son) because I want time to myself, or want to do nothing, or even tinker with a creative project. It is easier to say no to myself than other people. While being quick to say yes can maybe help me avoid disappointing others, it comes at a cost. Because many times I don’t say no, I wind up feeling resentful, overwhelmed, exhausted, and even jealous of others who can say no with ease.
So, as someone who has felt these consequences of not saying no when I really wanted to, I was drawn to a concept writer and critic Kylie Maslen who introduced me to called “spoon theory”. Spoon theory is a way to create boundaries but also be generous with other people’s energy. As Kylie explained:
“The idea is that everyone has a certain number of spoons in their drawer and as you go throughout the day you will use up those spoons in completing activities… so you learn how to pace yourself and use your energy best in order to make the most of those spoons available.” The community will speak with that shortcut of spoons, adds Kylie. “Often we will say things like, ‘Hey, I don’t have the spoons to go into this right now but I will get back to you when I do.’ Or even when we are asking someone something we will say, ‘When you have the spoons….’ and in saying something like that, it says we understand that we are not going to push someone into acting deciding really quickly.”
What really struck me about spoon theory is that it is not only a helpful way to check in on my own capacity and provide a frame for saying no, but it also encourages generous requests. So before I share a few things I have come across that might help you with saying no, I think generously asking is an important point to consider. How am I asking things of other people? Could it be more generous or flexible? Could I consider their current circumstances? Could there be alternatives? Can I make space for a polite decline? Perhaps by providing the option for others to say no, I can normalize saying no, and maybe unwind from the busyness hamster wheel. Life is continuous learning so here are some approaches I have found helpful to frame saying no.
I listen to my guts. If it feels weird, I say no. A friend sent me a message the other day saying, ” Never beg someone to be in your life. If you text, call, visit and still get ignored, walk away. It is called self-respect”. He is right on.
I practice starting small. I generally find it a lot harder to say no to someone I am close to, so I am practicing with acquaintances or emails from strangers.
I do not say maybe when I want to say no. Sometimes a maybe is a legitimate maybe and that’s fine, but to spot a no masquerading as a maybe I ask myself if I would say yes if it was tomorrow? I also ask myself if I feel I need to say no out of guilt or fear. For the all or nothing types like me, it can be easier to identify what it is that is contributing to that feeling of overwhelm or resentment and create a rule: I am not adding anything new to my to-do list until next year.
Wait. I have a tendency to rush into a yes to people-please, so I am learning to take some time to sit with a request to determine if it is a yes or a no. Saying no is a delicate and ongoing practice, but one I think can help me hear my own yes…. even if that’s just to have space to yes to my afternoon nap or evening read.
This year, I say no to seeing my parents for Christmas. It will be the first Christmas I spend just with my son. I feel sad but there is nothing I can do about it. We simply cannot travel in peace or at all and there are so many rules and regulations to figure out that keep changing on a daily basis. So, we will make the best of it by saying yes to certain things. Saying yes to staying home, meeting friends in Vienna, spending quality time together, and buying a three-meter tall Christmas tree because I have the four-meter ceilings to accommodate this kind of madness. We will decorate it and hope Santa or the Austrian Christkind will bring many presents. I will make the best of this mess and just say yes to some things I usually would not do. I hope you will too because who knows what tomorrow will hold.
So, I made those cookies even though I was tired and wanted to be on the couch with tea and a book. You should have seen the sparkling in his eyes when he proudly took those cookies to school though. Choices.
Stay happy. Stay sane. Stay healthy.