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Lessons From a Former Push-Over

Learn how to say no without feeling guilty even when you're too nice or a pushover. Become more productive and happy in your personal and professional life.


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Aria Dailee

a year ago | 6 min read

How I Learned to say no and put myself first

Realizing I Was Too Nice

Just after the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were issued, I ran into one of my neighbors and her daughter. I was just getting back from running a few errands when she saw me from her balcony, which faces the front of our apartment building. Our conversation continued for a little longer than I liked, especially because I was holding a few bags, so I tried to politely end it. But she had an ulterior motive: she wanted to ask me for a favor.

After telling me how smart she thinks I am, she finally told me that she wanted me to help her daughter with her homework. I felt bad saying no at first, so I agreed. I thought that it was going to be for just an hour on one subject, which didn’t seem so bad. But after I agreed, my neighbor revealed that she wanted me to help her daughter, who I then realized was special needs, with her online schooling in my apartment for the rest of the school year during my work hours.

At first, I walked away feeling dreadful. I love to help people whenever I can, but this was much more than I initially bargained for. I wanted nothing to do with the situation. I really don’t like to watch other people’s children when I’m not close to the parents; I barely know this neighbor. We only exchange a few polite greetings when we happen to run into each other.

The more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to tell her that I couldn’t help them. Because I didn’t have my neighbor’s phone number, I wrote her an apologetic letter, later that same day, telling her I could not help after all and included some free and paid resources that may be able to help her daughter with her studies. I felt a bit of relief after I placed it behind their door.

Recounting this experience made me think about why I had a hard time saying no and what steps I could take to avoid similar situations in the future.

Understanding Why Saying No Was Difficult

Many articles talk about the benefits of re-introducing “no” into one's vocabulary, but most don’t delve into why we feel the need to be people-pleasers in the first place. I believe it stems from benevolence being a highly-valued trait in society. We’re taught to treat others with kindness and to be generally agreeable at a young age. Being too “picky” is seen as a negative personality trait. Idioms like, “You’ve got to go along to get along” encourages the idea that “just going with the flow” is better than being overly critical.

Most people naturally want to avoid being the source of negativity, whether it’s negative emotions or outcomes. But the older I get, the more I realize that there are some people who will do anything to try to take advantage of nice people, and being overly considerate of them is just a waste of time, effort, and emotional energy. Being kind to others is great advice but only up to a point. There’s some virtue in being a little selfish sometimes too. We cannot and should not worry about how others will feel for thinking of ourselves first, especially when they wouldn’t put you first if you really needed them. Do not let the fear of other people’s opinions and expectations dictate how you spend your time.

Why Saying No is Important

Confrontation is an unavoidable part of life that can be beneficial in the long run when handled well. However, avoidance of “negativity” is starting to become an extreme norm. It’s getting so bad that “ghosting” is an understood and accepted term in modern western society. But there are many times when the “if I ignore it, it goes away” strategy just doesn’t work or actually makes things more confusing and hurtful. I’ve found that setting boundaries with people often times will make them respect and like me more, not less.

Saying no is an adulthood rite of passage. Being too willing to help also can have an adverse effect on many aspects of your life, including in your career. Despite being a valued trait, benevolence actually makes you more likely to be overworked and underpaid, because helping your coworker’s with their work can land them promotions and raises while leaving you burned out. I’ve personally experienced helping a few coworkers, despite being extremely busy myself, who then took credit for my contributions, leaving me wondering if this was causing my talents to be underappreciated at work. I no longer allow myself to be taken advantage of and ensure that my supervisor knows of all my contributions and accomplishments. Now when I don’t have time to help anyone else, I just let them know that I can’t help at the moment. I have a much better work-life balance and am much happier at my job.

How to Say No

There are many ways to go about declining to participate in an activity or project. Here’s a list of a few ways I’ve found most effective for me.

  1. You Don’t Have to Make A Decision Right Away

If you are unsure about a favor being asked of you, give yourself time to think it over before making a decision. Weighing the pros and cons of a request can give you the time you need to realize if it works for you.

2. Declining doesn’t require an explanation

Sometimes I used to hesitate to say no because I thought I owed others an explanation for why I was declining their request. However, once I realized that I didn’t owe anyone (except for maybe my boss) an explanation it really turned things around for me. Saying a firm, quick, and courteous no leaves little room for doubt or discussion.

3. Offer an Alternative

Being assigned a task or asked a favor that is less than ideal will definitely decrease general satisfaction at work or in our everyday lives. Try thinking of a better offer that is mutually beneficial for all parties involved. Declining the initially requested task for a counteroffer that is better aligned with your interests or talents is a great way to reject a less than ideal offer while taking the initiative.

4. Say Maybe Later Instead of No

If asked to do a task at an inopportune time but you’d still like to help, just let the other party know when’s a better time for you. Often, I’ve found that I had assumed something needed to be done immediately when there was some leeway. Being clear about due dates and openly communicating if I had the time to do a task prevented me from becoming overwhelmed or burned out. This allowed me to produce better work at my job and have free time in my personal life to take up new hobbies.

5. You’re Allowed to Change Your Mind

Remember that if something unexpected comes up, it’s alright to let people know you no longer can help. While you shouldn’t make a habit of changing your mind all of the time, especially for important commitments, it’s generally okay to change your mind on a previous commitment.

6. Remember to think of yourself first

You are not responsible for anyone’s happiness but your own. You cannot just do things for others to your detriment. If someone gets upset with you for not doing what they ask of you, they were probably a manipulative person just trying to use you. I think some people have forgotten that asking someone for a favor is not a command but a request that you are not obligated to do just because they really wanted you too. This is going to mean that there may be some people in your life that will no longer want to interact with you. But you are most likely better off without them.

The last time I ran into my neighbor, she just rolled her eyes at me and walked away. And to be honest, I wasn’t bothered by that at all. Because the time I would have spent helping her daughter could have caused me to fall behind at work and would have left me with less free time in my personal life to pursue my interests. In the last few months, I’ve learned a few programming languages and built my first website and mobile app. I wouldn’t have accomplished that without making time for myself. Saying no more often has made me a more effective communicator and a happier person. I hope you remember to put yourself first too.

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Aria Dailee

Research geographer whose mind is full of too many thoughts to keep to herself. Website: https://mymorningmusings.com Elsewhere: https://linktr.ee/ariadailee


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