Learning to Say “No”

Growing up in my house, “no” was considered a bad word. This was partly rooted in evangelicalism and partly due to good ol’ Southern hospitality, but the biggest reason was because nobody taught my parents to say “no” to friends and family. Don’t get me wrong; they could shut down someone they didn’t know in a heartbeat. But if someone they were friends with asked them to do anything, they would move mountains to make it happen.

As I grew older, some of that influenced my own understanding of how relationships were supposed to work. Friends asked you to do stuff, and you did it; that was it. But one day I asked a friend—someone I had done many things for—to do something for me, and they said “no.” I was sort of flabbergasted at first, because I genuinely wasn’t expecting them to refuse. To be honest, I got upset, because I had done so many things for them and they weren’t willing to do this one thing for me…but then I realized what was wrong with that line of thinking. I hadn’t been doing things for other people because I wanted to or because it was the nice thing to do, but because I was treating it as a type of currency. I expected my kindness to buy me kindness from others.

That’s not how life works, however, and it isn’t a healthy dynamic in your friendships. There’s not enough time on this world to balance your “kindness checkbook,” so to speak.

From this interaction, I learned to start saying “no” and to allow myself to tell friends I couldn’t make it, rather than always pushing myself to go do more, despite how tired I may be or how socially exhausted I am.

“No” isn’t just for friends; it’s for family, too. We all know that saying “no” to family is hard and often can come with hurt feelings. But it’s more important to be able to stand up for yourself and your time than to always bend to other people’s will. It’s still something I struggle with, and only occasionally can I follow my own advice.

Now, I no longer feel like I’m helping someone because I get something out of it, but because it’s the kind thing to do. I don’t dread waking up at 5 a.m. to take a friend to the airport, or sweating through the summer heat to move them out of their apartment. I look forward to it, because without my contribution, they would be worse off.

It’s important to find that same balance within yourself and watch how much weight will come off your shoulders once you stop worrying about “Why am I helping?” and starting thinking “How can I help?” As legendary CEO Steve Jobs once said, “It’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”

Sam Bigham, who is working as an intern at RiseUP Cooperative, grew up in the hills of North Georgia. As a senior communication major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, his primary focus is public relations and copy writing.

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