More about saying no

I had two conversations today that reinforced for me the importance of the lessons I’ve been learning lately about when it’s appropriate to say “no” to a project.

This afternoon, a friend described a litany of projects that are draining her time and energy and creating a great deal of stress in her life. I could feel her frustration and exhaustion as she told me what she was up against. The sad part was that many of these projects are things she didn’t even want to do; she just took them on because someone asked her to, and she didn’t have the nerve to say no.

Then, this evening, I heard from another friend who had stepped down from her position with an organization that is in the middle of a very large, very demanding project. I think the situation was a little complicated, but if I understood her correctly, the upshot was that it had become very stressful for her, and she did not feel her involvement represented the best use of her time.

As I thought about my friends’ situations, I began reflecting on my own habit of saying yes to everything.

I like to believe that I take on projects out of a desire to help others. That’s a great motive. Helping others is reflecting divine Love — God — which is exactly what we were created to do. Jesus taught that we can save ourselves a lot of trouble if we allow Love to drive our actions.

But as I began peeling back the layers of thought underpinning my actions, I discovered that even in the midst of expressing Love, we can find ourselves drifting into various types of error. For instance:

Fear. How often do we say yes to a project because we’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t? Fear is never a valid reason for doing anything. It will run (and ruin!) your life if you let it, and it can lead you into many other kinds of error.

Arrogance. Sometimes fear stems from an exaggerated sense of our own importance or a diminished sense of others’ value or ability. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken on projects because I was afraid that nobody else would be willing or able to do the work, or because I simply didn’t trust someone else to get it right. But intelligence, skill, and generosity are qualities of divine Mind, which we all reflect. Everybody has access to unlimited supplies of those qualities, so there’s no reason for any of us to think we’re the only one smart enough, talented enough, or generous enough to complete a given task.

Selfishness. “I thought of this project. It’s mine, and you can’t have it. I’m going to do it myself because I came up with it.” Ever caught yourself thinking along those lines? I have. Besides being terribly childish, this mindset implies that the idea came from me. But while I am sometimes allowed to serve as the conduit for a good idea, I am never the source. Why, then, would I become rigid and selfish and unwilling to let anybody else have the fun of implementing a particular idea?

The worst part of buying into this kind of error is that if we’re not careful, we can end up monopolizing all the projects that come our way, which deprives others of the joy of helping. (I riffed on that idea here.) Meanwhile, we keep ourselves so busy “rushing around smartly,” as Mary Baker Eddy puts it, that we sometimes neglect things that seem less pressing but are infinitely more important — stuff like caring for our family and friends, spending time with our spouses, playing with our children (including the four-legged kind), or pursuing activities that contribute directly to our spiritual growth.

I’m not suggesting we should blow off all the projects that come our way. We should never become so selfish and insular that we refuse to reach out to others with love and compassion. But instead of blindly saying yes to every request for assistance, we would be wise to examine our motives, and if we find that our answer is motivated by anything less than a desire to express Love, then we need to change that answer. It may be that the project or position we turn down is exactly what someone else needed to express Love more fully, and everyone involved will be blessed by our decision.


7 thoughts on “More about saying no”

  1. this is very thought-provoking…. for me it’s sometimes a false sense of responsibility or a feeling of duty or obligation. when I stopped doing things for those reasons, some people got mad at me! because they are often exhausting themselves with these false obligations, and I was making the work lighter. but when I do something spontaneously, like volunteering to cover for someone who had a family tragedy, this felt very right and I accomplished it with ease.

    but I no longer sign up for things that are a time-sink with no return, meaning, they don’t demonstrably help someone or the community. going through the motions to prop up an organization that’s not doing anything doesn’t seem to me to be a good use of the precious time we’ve been given.

  2. Saying no is the key to saying yes to the right work. I have learned that the hard way in my life. As Linda Popov so brilliantly puts it in her book “A Pace of Grace” we need to be in touch with spirit so that we are guided in our choices regarding what to do and not do. Emily, you seem to reach out to the ‘sustaining infinite’ with ease and grace. I think you would enjoy Linda’s writing. Try her website
    A Pace of Grace to meet her if you are so moved.

    BTW I just added you to my blogroll so that I can come and visit and invite my friends to do the same.

    Take Care in Red Fork,

  3. “the upshot was that it had become very stressful for her, and she did not feel her involvement represented the best use of her time.”

    It was not the magnitude of the project that was stressful, nor even the project itself, it was the fact that, what had been presented as real, wasn’t, it was all a facade.

    Whatever reasons caused me to become involved, and yes it was, to some degree, arrogance, fear and selfishness, oh, and the do-gooder trait, were no longer important to me.

    What was important, is that I stop being an enabler.

    Will I be looked on as a quitter? I can’t worry about what others think of me, it is myself that I face in the mirror, not they, and I’m very comfortable with what I see.

  4. Another thought on saying no.

    I’ve always said that the most important word that a volunteer can learn is know. That’s K-N-O-W.

    Know what you’re getting in to.
    Know who you’re dealing with.
    Know enough to listen to your gut.
    And, most importantly,
    Know when to say no.

    I only wish that I had followed my own advice.

  5. Thanks for this. You have helped everyone who’s made the time to read it.

    On a (somewhat) lighter note: Some people just can’t sit still – like me. I find I get into more things because I feel like if I’m not doing something, I’m wasting time. P.S. I’m an early riser.

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