“If you want more time, freedom, and energy, start saying no.”Anonymous
I have been thinking a lot about the the word “no” lately. Why is it such a hard thing to say for so many people? Why does it inspire an icky, sticky sort of feeling every time we know we are going to have to say it?
As a people pleaser from way back, saying no to someone was something I rarely did. I learned at a young age saying no meant very little to the adults around me and I imagine I just carried that in to my adult life. Not being able to say no got me into all sorts of trouble and awful predicaments over the years.
One of my clearest memories of how detrimental not being able to say no can be was back in my cardiac team days. I was working at a large medical center in the operating room on three different teams: adult open heart, pediatric open heart and heart transplant. No stress there, right? Honestly, it was the absolute hardest job I ever had. It was physically and mentally exhausting. I did it for three long years. I worked 10 hour shifts 4 days a week and took late or overnight call 5-6 times a week. By October of my first year I had worked almost 2 additional months in overtime. Because the work was so specialized and the team was smaller, there was just a lot of work to do. If someone went on vacation, which we rarely did, the rest of the team had to pick up the shifts and the call. Don’t get me wrong, it was some of the most rewarding work I have ever done in my career, but it really took it’s toll on me.
I remember one time when one of the pediatric cardiac team nurses was out of town (there were only 4 of us) and I got sick with the flu. The nausea, vomiting, fever of 102 – it was awful. Despite it being my day off, an emergency case came in and they needed an extra nurse. They called me to come in regardless of how sick I was. So what did I do you ask? I said “sure.” I crawled in to the hospital, changed into scrubs and went to work. One of the doctors took pity on me and put in an IV and I had to roll the pole around the operating room with me through the whole procedure. It was not something I recommend. When I was done with the case, I made my way back to my car parked half a mile away, collapsed in the driver’s seat and cried because I didn’t think I could drive myself home.
So why didn’t I just say no? Quite simply I couldn’t. My team needed me. The surgeon needed me. The patient needed me. If I said no they would think I was a bad person that didn’t care about my job or my patients. I would feel guilt and shame for letting everyone down. Back then being a nurse, especially a nurse on such a hardcore team, was a huge part of my identity. So I folded time and time again. I cancelled plans, put off seeing my family, changed my vacations, went to work on my days off, and went in while I was ill. I said yes again and again.
Then one day I said no.
I finally had a whole week off of work and I had family coming in to town that I hadn’t seen for years. I was at home getting the spare room ready and preparing for my guests. I was so excited, I had been planning for weeks what to cook and where we would go. Then my cell phone rang. I looked down and saw the generic phone number for the hospital. I almost didn’t pick it up, but I still wasn’t that brave. It was one of the nurses from pediatric team. They needed me to come in. There was an emergency and they needed me ASAP. And this time, I said no. I told her I couldn’t make it in this time. I had plans. The nurse was shocked and appalled that I would say no. She really couldn’t comprehend the words I was saying. She actually sounded offended and started to fight with me telling me I needed to cancel my plans with my family. I asked her what she would do if I was out of town? She stumbled and stuttered over some words and ended up saying they would have to figure something else out, but since I was actually in town, they needed me. I told her to pretend I was out of town and again said no. I thanked her for the call, wished them good luck and politely as possible hung up the phone.
You probably can guess this but they figured out how to manage without me and everything worked out fine with the team and the patient. They were just so used to me being available whenever they needed me that it had become a given. They took for granted that I would always put my job before my personal life. I was scared to go back to work, but I had no regrets about my decision to draw the line in the sand. And when I did go back the next week, there really wasn’t that much fallout…likely because there was so much work to do that nobody really had time to be pissed at me.
The point is I said no and they figured it out. That was a turning point for me. I started saying no quite a bit more after that. It really upset a lot of people when I found the word “no.” Many of my friends, family and coworkers were incredibly upset with this new me. They were so used to treating me they way they wanted to treat me and all of a sudden I stopped being Danielle the doormat. It was both liberating and eye opening. Some of those people I had close relationships were really angry at me and told me so repeatedly. I held firm to my new word, my new superpower. I had some life changing realizations at that time too: Telling somebody what you do and do not like about the way they treat you or what you want should not be perceived as a character assassination. It is simply you creating your reality and making it clear how you want to be treated. It is an opportunity to choose what you do and do not want in your life.
There is no guarantee how another person will take it when you speak up for yourself, but whatever their response may be, it is your right to say no.
This was such a significant moment in my life that it gave me the strength to finally walk away from the unhealthy life I had created. I agreed to take a travel contract 3500 miles away. I packed up my car with my dog, my clothes and my shoes and headed to San Diego, CA. I took the word “no” with me.
Over the years I learned how to be kinder when saying no to others. I used different strategies and tactics but, for the most part, I have really stuck with saying a simple yet firm “no” when that is what I mean. I hold myself accountable to my yes and no. If someone asks me to help them and I say yes but I really meant no, then that is on me and I will follow through without resentment. But if I say no and it is not well received, then I stick to my answer and allow the other person to manage their own thoughts and reaction. When I say yes or no, I mean it. It is a crucial part of how I take care of myself.
So I leave you with this, give yourself permission to say “no.” Say it with confidence and grace but make sure you say it. It is truly one of the best gifts you can give yourself.
“One key to successful relationships is learning to say no without guilt, so that you can say yes without resentment.”Bill Crawford
Sending you love and light!