Recently a friend and I were talking about when we first knew we were grown-ups…er, mature adults. When we knew we were women and not just girls. For me, it was when I bought my first bed. I had been living in San Francisco for nearly a year, sleeping on a mattress on the floor because it seemed more practical. I was in a relationship that was headed toward marriage. We were already talking engagement, so why bother buying a bed that would just fit me – not me and the guy I would be marring soon?
Well, even after our short-lived engagement ended and our relationship dissolved, it took me months to make the plunge and buy my own bed. There was a part of me that didn’t want to admit my relationship had “failed,” that I wasn’t getting married, that I was on my own.
But as I started to heal – thanks in part to time and good counsel – I realized I needed to embrace my single status instead of longing for the path I had thought I was on. The path down the aisle. If I didn’t, I’d never move on, I’d never grow.
So, I shopped around for a bed and bought the one I wanted – the pillow-top, full-sized, just-enough-room-for-me bed. After handing over my credit card and signing for the delivery fee, I felt an incredible sense of empowerment knowing that I could take care of myself.
My friend’s experience was similar: she realized she was truly a woman when she first ended a relationship with a guy. By telling him, No thank you, I’m not interested in pursuing this relationship, she knew she had grown up. She knew what she did and did not want, and she owned her decision. She knew when to say no. And she was willing to embrace an uncertain future by closing the door to something that at least seemed safe.
I haven’t always been great at saying no – I’m a recovering perfectionist and people-pleaser, ya’ll – but I’ve been learning the value of a “no” over the last few years. I’ve realized there are some great reasons to say no in life, and some really bad ones. This week, I’m focusing on 4 great reasons to say no, and next week I’ll follow up with 4 not-so-good motivations.
Where do your “no’s” fall?
4 Great Reasons to Say No
1. You Know What You Do and Don’t Want
I can be pretty indecisive. Give me clear-cut “good v. bad” options, and I’ll hopefully make the right choice – although Lord knows I still choose wrongly sometimes. But it’s the “good v. good” situations that can paralyze me. I can get stuck in the mindset of thinking that there’s a better or best choice. But that’s just not the way life works.
When you’re weighing a few different good options, the only choice you can make is what the most loving, life-giving decision. And you can only make that choice with the knowledge you have at the time – what you’ve learned in life so far, and what you know about yourself. Sometimes that means saying “no” to good things.
I love what Shauna Niequist says on this topic:
“There’s a narrowing that takes place as you grow up, I think—you leave more and more behind: things other people want you to be, things you thought you might want to be, ways of living that never did actually fit, like shoes that are a little too tight.”
I love the imagery of shedding clothes that don’t fit – getting rid of the things that make you feel uncomfortable or just don’t look like you anymore. That’s one of the blessings of getting older – you learn so much more about who you are, what you need to feel alive and free, and what you really want to do with the time you’ve been given.
Sometimes we learn who we are and what we need by discovering who we’re not, what we don’t want to do, and what we really don’t need to hang onto anymore. While I still struggle with the fear of missing out when I say no to an opportunity, I am finding more joy these days in saying no to the things that don’t fit me – the loud parties, the dates that don’t “click” – in favor of the things that bring joy – the nights in with close friends, the new relationships that are scary but exciting.
2. You Have Healthy Margins
In the last five years, the discipline that has most revolutionized my life and my faith has been the practice of silence and solitude. In order to give my soul room to breath and to hear from God, I have to carve out margins – whitespace to process everything that’s happening on the pages of my life.
In her book Finding Spiritual Whitespace, Bonnie Gray paints a beautiful picture of the value of whitespace:
“In graphic design, whitespace draws the viewer to focus on the images and text that are most important. Whitespace brings an intimacy and immediacy to the page – awakening the foreground and quieting the background.”
The narrowing of life that Shauna talks about above comes from intentionally creating more margins in your life. If you fill your days with work and happy hours and friendships and ambitions without leaving whitespace in the margins, how will you ever see what’s most important to you in that jumble of activity?
Whitespace draws our eyes to the most important parts of us. Margins give us room to uncover new truths.
3. You Know Your Limitations
Sometimes saying “no” is less about intentionally creating whitespace in your life and more about simply needing rest. If you struggle with saying “no” because you think that makes you a bad friend or a lazy person, let me reassure you that’s just not true – or at least it’s not true if your no is coming from a good motivation (see next week’s post on 4 Bad Reasons to Say No).
Saying yes is often the path of least resistance, while a no is like a stop sign in the road. It forces you to halt. But rest is a necessary part of life – it’s how God wired us, in his own image – so sometimes we just have to hit the pause button on life in order to enjoy it more fully.
As created beings, we’re subject to the limitations of time and space. We’re not the creators – we’re not in control, even though we’d often like to think we are. We need sleep. We need God. And God, being a good Father, is more than willing to give us what we need. More than that, he gives gifts that go well beyond what we need – he gives us life in abundance.
Just as sleep prepares us for the day ahead, so does true soul rest prepare us to receive that abundant life. We have to make room in our hearts to receive God’s good gifts. We have to stop hustling for our self-worth in order to get a clearer picture of who we truly are. And that may require saying “no” to some good things in order to say “yes” to God’s invitation to rest.
4. You Respect the Person on the Other End
Saying no to another person takes courage. It can be tempting to say yes – either in an attempt to win their affections or to simply not let them down. If you’re a people-pleaser like me, there’s a high that comes from knowing you’ve met or exceeded someone’s expectations. But if you’re saying yes all the time, then you’ll stop right there: at their expectations. You’ll lose sight of who you really are. And you may also fail to recognize what they really need.
Saying no requires vulnerability – acknowledging that you don’t want to do something, or that you simply can’t at that particularly time. Saying no can even help build trust.
Or sometimes saying no is just a blessed ending. Whether it be the ending of a relationship or a vocation, no’s precede yes’s to something else. No to one relationship means yes to a future one – for them and for you. Not to a job means yes to something else God may be calling you to and yes to given that opportunity to someone who may be a better fit for the job.
If you’re saying no for one of the three reasons above – you know yourself, you’re creating healthy margins, or you’re honoring your need for rest – then you can trust that reasons for saying no are good ones. (To be sure, check your heart for the 4 Bad Reasons to Say No next week.)
Assuming your motivations are healthy and you’re not just acting out of fear or, as I like to call it, “perfectionist paralysis,” then saying no may very well be the kindest thing you can do for someone.
When you say no to someone because you need to rest, it not only allows you to flourish through those life-giving margins, but it may also afford them opportunity to grow.
Dating is a particularly tricky world, filled with yes’s and no’s and I-have-no-freaking-clue’s. But sometimes you have to get out of the gray zone – you have to cut the cords to your safety nets that allow you to feel wanted without the potential of getting hurt. You have to say no to the ones you know aren’t right for you and treat them with the respect they deserve – allowing them to find the one that’s right for them. I’ve found that sometimes the kindest thing to do is simply be honest with your date and say no when you know there’s no future.
Now, when do you know that? Well, that’s a conversation for another time, my friend.
A couple caveats to the four points above…
You may be asking yourself, What if I can’t say no? What if my boss has given me a clear ultimatum to stay late at work or lose my job? What if I don’t have a say in the matter? Those are great questions that reflect the reality of life: sometimes we don’t have the option of saying no. But, we may have the option to negotiate.
For instance, if your boss is asking you to stay late, consider whether there’s a way to say yes this time, but clearly communicate that next time you need to go home to be with your family. Or, if you’re at a standstill with your loved one – he wants to go to the party and you want to stay in – don’t compromise by going to the party for a short time and then spending the rest of the evening in. Go to the party and stay in the next time. Or vice versa.
I love how Allison Vesterfelt puts it in her piece 5 Things to Know Before You Get Married:
“[Negotiation] allows people to begin evaluating the real value of their needs and wants. ‘I’ll go hiking with you if you do the dishes all week’ really brings that into focus. Is hiking really worth dishes all week? Are dishes really worth spending your Saturday doing something you don’t like? If so, great. We have a deal.”
Negotiation forces you to evaluate whether you really want to say no or if a yes would be more loving, more life-giving. Compromise is often a lose-lose situation. Your boss wants you to stay late at work, you want to go home. If you fight them on this, you’ll lose. If you help them this time and negotiate for the future, you both win.
One final caveat on the four points above: there are times where we need to say yes to things that make us uncomfortable because they help us grow. Stretching yourself is part of the “adulting” experience. You have to try on things to figure out how they fit, and sometimes you just have to suck it up and do the thing you don’t enjoy because it’s what someone else enjoys. That’s part of relationships: dying to self in order to show love to another. It’s just a matter of evaluating when to say yes and when to say no. And that takes time and space to figure out.
What are some of the reasons you’ve said “no?” How do you know when to say “yes” and when to say “no?”