Saying “no,” is something I have learned is essential to my self-preservation. As much as I don’t like it, I’ve found that saying no can actually make me a better parent and spouse. I recently had to turn down speaking at a large conference in my field, something I’d actively lobbied for, pursued, and then got. Composing the note to decline was excruciating. It was short, respectful, and in it I mentioned how honored I’d been to be asked. A few days before the invitation had pinged in my inbox with all the validity of a dream coming true. I’d started writing my speech in my head, planned the trip a dozen ways.
Then I realized the conference would interfere timing-wise with the treatment for my genetic disease, so it was a no-go. Plus, the idea of taking ten days out of the summer that I get to spend with my kids would be a drag. It could be done, of course. I could reschedule my treatment (maybe), drag all five of us cross-country, make it into a “vacation.”
Nope. There’s no way to schedule the treatment that easily. Even if I could, I do that way too often. My family travels around the country for my work most summers. They’re game about it generally. Recently I’ve been thinking about declining these invitations as a means to strengthen my relationships with my husband and kids while they’re still at home.
Even so. It was depressing to turn that one down. It had felt hard enough to take the initiative to go after something I wanted, being the type of person who is perennially timid but trying to get over it. I was more than a little nonplussed to realize I’d done all the hard work only to have to turn it down. After a couple hours of tossing it around my mind, I turned to the brighter side: okay, so it wasn’t ideal to have to bow out, but doing so gave me the opportunity to bolster a skill that, while not my favorite, is an adult essential: saying “No, thank you.”
It felt lousy but also good to do something so “adult.” I felt like doing so, and speaking candidly about it with my kids, was showing them a necessary life skill. Who knows what they might be challenged with as they grow? Partially to justify my viewpoint, I searched for people who might support my decision to cut back when necessary. Julianne Wurm conducted a 2014 study at Purdue about women who had difficulty saying no. She wrote in her article (later TedTalk) “The Knot of Saying Yes and No” about the guilt over fifty percent of people reported “when they turned down requests.” The percentage of women who felt guilty when having to say no was significantly higher than the number of men who were bothered by turning something down. I thought this was an interesting thing to note, but I was more interested in how turning down requests can affect one’s feeling of well-being and wellness. What was the guilt about, her project continued to ask? Do people feel better when we do something we feel we “should,” do, even when we really don’t want to?
Wurm speaks to the side of saying no that can be problematic: the results, both good and bad. She starts by talking about the idea of “agency,” the will, action, and free will you can exert to do something in your life. However, saying “no,” produces guilt, guilt that essentially comes in when you are not willing to bow to someone else’s agency out of fear. The negative can bleed into anger, according to Wurm.
Applying her logic to my own request, it was disappointing because I didn’t feel I got to choose, really, since saying no to the speaking gig was done out of a medical need that was out of my control. Taking it further, though, was I guilty? Was I angry? I was able to turn down the speaking job early enough that it didn’t make me feel as though I’d let anyone down. I wasn’t angry in this instance except at my life circumstances that forced me to choose, and while that was an unpleasant truth, I’m not angry, per se. It’s more like a remembered wound angry, if that makes sense, like poking my tongue in a sore tooth after a dental visit.
But I can see how saying no could produce guilt and/or anger in other instances easily. As a teenager, I was asked once to sing for a big party for my grandmother in another state. I was uncomfortable in the “hating-your-own-skin” teenager-y way, but I said yes because I thought I should. When the time came I was so mortified and self-conscious I couldn’t do it. I spent the whole time being “sick” in the backseat of my parents’ car, knowing that they knew I wasn’t really sick, but miserable and unable to even enjoy the party because I felt so guilty. Guilty for saying yes and backing out, guilty for disappointing everyone, and also, angry I’d been put in that place – even though it wasn’t a bad place to be in, being asked to do something. Saying yes to those kinds of things made me burn out on singing, and I’m only getting back to it now, at thirty-nine. What a waste of time! If only I’d just said no and moved on.
That is just one example of a cavalcade of things I’ve done because I thought I should. Yes, I should take responsibility and admit that saying yes was a choice I made. That chance is gone. That is having agency over the situation, and coincidentally being a responsible human being. It’s participating in the things in life rather than blaming others because I didn’t get/do/be what I really wanted. That places blame or praise on my shoulders and then my intentions and actions are clear.
It seems to me that as people we should spend our time listening to ourselves so we can let our “no’s” be as loud as the agency of others thrust upon us. I found Wurm’s results in guilt with females significant. A lot of learning to take the reins of my own agency is being kind to myself and not having to do something because I feel that I should. For me, part of being healthy is empowering myself enough to make the hard choices to take care of my body — especially when I don’t want to. The balancing act of meeting my needs and those of my family is easier when I understand that my energy, not just my time, is finite.
Declining that opportunity has already paid dividends. My particular illness is triggered by stress, and not doing that one thing has contributed to a sickness-free year so far. Plus, I am able to concentrate on filling up my calendar with activities that bring me joy. For my family, that means scheduling family-friendly music festivals and accessible camping trips. What are some hard choices you’ve made when you didn’t want to? Where did you go for support in your decision?