How do you feel when you want to say no to someone?
Think about at work and in your personal life—with people you just met, and people you’ve known for a long time. Is saying no usually a pretty clear, calm experience?
Or have you—like a lot of us—sometimes struggled to get no out? (hand raised)
Maybe you don’t even fully process the question until after you’ve said yes—and then feel frustrated, overwhelmed, sometimes resentful.
Sound familiar? If so, you’re in great company. To our credit, volunteers have huge hearts for others. But sometimes we find ourselves with a yes habit that holds us back from being fully ourselves and giving the world our best.
How to break it? Start by working with these two things:
1. No is not a bad word. It’s an act of discernment—knowing who you are, and how you give the world your best.
At some point, a lot of us learned it was a good thing to say yes. This is not tough to understand—volunteers are masters at connection, and no shuts connections down, while yes facilitates them—right?
Then we went through these life-changing service years where we were trying to maximize the opportunity, and we said yes to a lot, even most, of what was asked of us. These were years of growing, experimenting, challenging ourselves, serving—and weren’t we here to give it our all, after all?
Yes, but giving it our all doesn’t mean never saying no—and this is a hard one for a lot of us to take in.
In fact, as we finish our service years and are confronted with more decisions afterward (what work to do, community to build, etc.), giving it our all in a deeper sense usually means saying no—but doing so from a larger yes we each have inside.
What is this larger or “burning yes,” as Stephen Covey puts it in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?
An understanding of who we really are, and how we best serve the world.
This felt tricky to me after Peace Corps, because a big part of who I felt I was and what I thrived on was connecting with and supporting others. I felt honored that people sought me out when they were struggling. Loved that they considered me to be someone easy and fun to be around—someone encouraging, sometimes inspiring. And with projects, loved that they thought of me as someone who could get the job done with a great attitude.
Plus, it was more than that—it was a visceral thing. When people around me were hurting, I hurt. I could read people’s moods, and really wanted their dreams and visions to come true—almost as if they were my own. In fact, sometimes I got so involved in them, and so busy and sometimes frazzled, there wasn’t a lot of space left to figure out what my own dreams were. What I was being called to.
In fact, the first thing we’re all called to do is create some space to hear ourselves.
We each come to the world with specific gifts that no one else can give. And I believe we were actually born now because we have things the world needs now.
We get to our gifts by leaning into what feels true and life-giving to us—by just becoming ourselves, more and more. We have a responsibility to do this. If we don’t, it’s not only us who loses, but the larger community, because it’s not getting what is ours alone to give.
Thus, at its root, our burning yes is a yes to ourselves first, it’s a check in of: Does what’s being asked of me resonate with who I am, and who I’m called to become and give on a deeper level?
And part of who we’re all here to become is invested in truly reciprocal relationships. Ones that give us energy, not drain us; ones that recognize and encourage development of our gifts, not just draw from them.
So as Stephen Covey writes, in all our relationships, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically—to say ‘no’ to other things.”
And especially this, which has been game-changing to me: “Keep in mind that you are always saying ‘no’ to something. If it isn’t to the apparent, urgent things in your life, it is probably to the more fundamental, highly important things. Even when the urgent is good, the good can keep you from your best, keep you from your unique contribution, if you let it.”
Wow, he said it. But now the question is—how to do it?
If yes is an old habit, even when we want to break it, it’s not always like just flipping a switch. Emotionally—even physically—we’re just not used to saying no and it might feel quite wrong at first.
That’s okay—it’s normal. It’s a change that more realistically we work with gradually over time like trying on a new suit. First one foot… one sleeve… and so on. We need to do it at the pace that feels right to us. And eventually, subtly, we’ll be moved to notice that one day, it fits quite well.
Which brings us to:
2. The automatic yes is just a habit—and it can be replaced with a new one.
When we’re breaking a habit, we’re usually most successful if we’re building a new one to replace it with. Here are a few things to try as you’re working to break your yes habit:
- Honor wherever you are and start there. Again, sometimes the yes pattern is deeply embedded and it’s just too hard to start saying no immediately. If so, start by reflecting on a recent yes you regret—a small one. Sit with it, journal, and come from a place of curiosity, not judgment. What’s wrong with this yes for you? How does it conflict with your burning yes—what you’re here to give and become? What happened in the moment you said yes? Let yourself observe it, break it down, understand what happened—and what you’d like to say in a similar situation next time.
- Practice one-liners in advance. It might seem a little silly, but rehearsing things out loud makes them more possible for us to access in an uncomfortable situation. I like these ideas for clear, respectful noes from coach Marie Forleo:
- “Thanks so much for thinking of me. While it’s not something I’d like to do, please know how honored I am to be asked.”
- “I’d rather not, but thank you so much for thinking of me.”
Adapt them to your own voice and consider practicing with a friend or in front of the mirror.
- In the moment: Slow down the process. As social scientist Amy Cuddy points out in her book Presence, speaking slowly, taking pauses, taking up space, and taking time to respond facilitates a kind of inner expansion and empowerment. Allow yourself the space to check in with your interior before responding to someone. This may mean counting out at least 3 seconds, or anchoring into your breathing before speaking. And when you’re done, stop to honor and celebrate your work somehow. This can be as simple as a few encouraging words to yourself internally. Don’t skip this! We always do, and it makes an enormous difference in building any habit faster. You just built up your new muscle :).
It takes practice, but I promise, you can do this. And the prize is well worth it—you, fully alight in the world, doing your part for all of us.
If you found this blog valuable, please consider sharing it with others who might benefit, too. Want more support living as your brightest, fullest self? Sign up for my free starter course, 5 Steps to a Fulfilling Life After Service, right here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Christiana Rivers