How to say ‘no’ if you really have to
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Christine Webber says it pays to put yourself first when dealing with a difficult situation
Helpful people hate to say 'no'. Have you noticed that?
Of course, we all know individuals who are selfish and self-absorbed, and who would cross the road rather than help anyone. They have little problem in saying 'no'. But the majority of us want to be kind and useful - and we like to say 'yes'.
This is particularly true as we get older, because often we feel less 'special' than we once did. This can happen when our children leave home, or when we retire, or are widowed. Life isn't the same and it's easy to feel that our sense of purpose has gone. Helping others is one way we can feel better about ourselves.
Mostly this is a win-win situation. The recipients of our help are pleased to have it, and we feel good about giving it.
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But a recent visit from a friend reminded me that there's a downside to being that person who always offers a helping hand.
Steve (not his real name), is a retired teacher and a really decent man. When we met however, he looked and sounded seriously stressed. This is hardly surprising given that his mother is terminally ill, and he's trying to support a close friend who's going through a messy divorce, as well as a former colleague who has just been diagnosed with dementia.
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So, listening to Steve I could well understand why he was in such a state. But then he said that his biggest anxiety was that he felt overwhelmed by the hours he spends volunteering. He told me he felt he must step back from that, so that he can spend more time with the people who need him most, but that he feared the organisation would struggle without him.
We discussed how great it can be to feel indispensable, but what a burden it can be too. And then, I reminded him of a mutual friend who stayed with a truly appalling husband far too long believing that he wouldn't be able to cope if she left. As it turned out, when she did leave, he moved in another woman within weeks. The fact is that we're rarely irreplaceable!
But what was Steve to do? It turned out, he'd dropped some very vague, and somewhat convoluted, hints about his situation, but told me they'd been met with comments like: 'Oh dear, well so long as you don't have to leave us. That would be terrible.' As a result, he was having sleepless nights and worrying all the time about fitting everything into his schedule.
After more discussion, we decided that he had to be clear, brief and firm to get his message across. And we came up with three short sentences for him to say to his project leader:
'My mother's dying. I'm also very sad about two friends who need my support. So, I need to take a break from you.'
Could this tactic help you, I wonder? Are you, perhaps, someone who looks after your grandchildren and finds it hard to say 'no' when your son or daughter asks you for yet another evening of your time? Or are you the person at work, or on a charity committee, who always ends up doing the jobs no one else will tackle? If so, do you sometimes feel exhausted, or as if you never stop, or that you're being taken for granted? These aren't nice feelings, are they?
Why not try a new approach then, when someone you already help a lot asks for another favour? Calmly and clearly say: 'No, not this time. Sorry, I've got other plans.'
I'm sure you'll find it's much better than the alternatives, which are:
You try to excuse yourself by apologising and waffling and being vague - like Steve did - and end up agreeing to the very stuff you want to avoid
You keep quiet and help out more than ever, till one day you explode with rage, which upsets everyone, and you most of all.
So, vow to speak up earlier rather than later. And to say 'no' and put your point of view while you're feeling calm and in control. You'll still help the folk who need you, but you'll also become better at taking appropriate care for yourself - which is a positive and mentally healthy thing to do.
By the way, Steve used the three sentences we'd devised, and for the first time, he felt that his boss was really listening to him. Also, she wished him luck with his various challenges and said she hoped he'd return when his life became easier.
A good result - especially because Steve's just rung to say that last night he had the best sleep he's had in ages.