“The most basic boundary-setting word is no.” So wrote Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their bestselling book, Boundaries. Some people excel at saying “no.” My wife is quite proficient at it. Me? Not so much. But I’m learning.
I know a minister who requires those he’s going to marry to read Boundaries. He said this book is the most important book to him outside the Bible. And to prove it, he asked a prospective groom—to whom he’d assigned the book quite some time before—if he’d read the book. This was Wednesday. The wedding was on Saturday. “Uh, no. I haven’t gotten to it.” “Well, you better get reading or I won’t marry you guys on Saturday.”
He read the book. It’s a big deal.
One of the go-to sentences we use a lot these days, especially with those close to us when we cannot say yes is “they’ll just have to figure it out.” We are defaulting to this more and more, with good reason.
If you don’t know how to say no to people, you are like a painted target. Those who have a poor sense of boundary and propriety hone in on “really nice people” like an F-15 locking on to a target in war.
If you don’t learn how to say no, you will have a life of varied chaos. You will allow yourself to be taken advantage of. You will enable irresponsible behavior. And with such enabling behavior comes burnout and a loss of self-respect. I know. I’ve been there more than I’d like to admit.
People say yes to all sorts of requests for lots of reasons, some good, others not. Sometimes we say yes because we are generous people who want to help. But if one’s tendency is to always say yes to some appeal, it’s unlikely that the motives are pure and good.
We often say yes because we feel guilty saying no. We say yes because we want approval. We say yes because we’re afraid our egos will suffer if we do otherwise. We say yes because we are anxious. Most of all, we default to yes because we lack a clear sense of self. Edwin Friedman calls this self-differentiation.
When we say no. When we are not quick to step in when someone has gotten into a jam, with all the attendant drama, we not only hurt ourselves, we hurt them. There is something healthy and ennobling about letting someone “figure it out.” It is in solving the problems of life, especially the kind we’ve brought on ourselves, that we grow.
So here’s a challenge. Starting with small steps, begin to know when to say no. And then say no. One of our favorite forms of no is “I’m sorry, that just doesn’t work for me.” If your default setting is to say yes, you probably need to work on changing it to no. Take a step back and be brutally honest with yourself. “Will this really help them or is it just sparing me pain in the shortfall?”
Friedman’s Fables (Edwin H. Friedman)