Recently, I made a decision that had the potential to upset people.  I used to be a proud card-carrying member of the, “Suck It Up and Deal” tribe.  You don’t want to do something?  Too bad.  The natural order of things will be irrevocably destroyed if you say that one word: “No.”  Sometimes I couldn’t bring myself to suck it up and deal so I switched to the “Don’t Show Your Face Until You Can Get Your Shit Together” clan.  As a child, this meant spending many hours locked in my room, and this turned into staying in my house for days as an adult.  The smallest decisions (No, I cannot attend your church potluck.) became really big deals. (Now, everyone hates me, and I’m probably going to burn in hell.) If I break it down, saying “no” isn’t just one choice.  It is many separate decisions.

1.  You have to actually know what you want.

For me, this has been a skill learned through many bad decisions. This step is where I usually would default to: “Oh, I’ll just do what they want.”  It was easier than trying to organize this jumbled mess of inner-critics:

“What would your dead father say?, What should a good girl do?, What is expected of you?, What sort of undetermined catastrophic consequences will there be?”

I’m not saying that we should never listen to that inner-critic.  Sometimes, that voice has valuable information.  That voice is there to keep us safe.  If you are crossing the street, and your inner critic says, “Make sure you look both ways!” this is an example of a good use of that inner voice.  Sometimes, the inner-critic gets a little hyper-vigilant.  It might say, “If you speak in front of this group of people, they will all laugh at you, and you will die!”  That same voice is screaming so loud about how everything is going to kill us that we can’t even begin to listen or know what we truly want to do.

This first step is the hardest one.  It takes practice, and it requires us to be uncomfortable.  If this gets too stressful, try doing a physically grounding activity.  Take 10 deep breaths, go for a walk outside, or do some yoga.  Try again when the situation seems less emotionally charged.

2.  Make an aware and empowered choice.

So, you figured out what you want.   Surprise! It might piss people off.  Now, you must do the thing you don’t want to do.  Make the phone call.  Slam the door in someone’s face.  Shape your mouth, tongue, and teeth in a formation and push air through your vocal chords to make that scary sound come out of, “Nnnnnooooooooo.”  Sometimes we can’t do that, but don’t fall into self-loathing.  You made it past the first step which puts you leagues ahead of most people.  Just be aware here.  It’s okay to just tell yourself, “I don’t want to do this, but I’m going to do it anyway because to say no feels very scary.”  This is actually a very empowering thing to say. 

You weighed the costs and benefits and made a strong choice.  It does not matter if it is what you initially set out to do.  People do great things all of the time that they don’t want.  What matters here is that you are self-aware, and you know why you did or didn’t complete a certain course of action.  This is ownership, accountability, and responsibility, and it feels good.

3.  Sit with your decision.

Let’s say you did the thing.  You said no.  Don’t listen to all of those self-help authors and motivational speakers that will tell you that doing the “right” thing will feel great.  It might feel great, but it usually won’t.  It most likely will feel scary.  You had a system in place that said, “When we do what other people want, it’s safer and conflict-free.  Yeah, we suffer for it, but we can handle that.  We are used to that.”  You are breaking the system.  Your brain is going to pull out all the stops to get you to go back.  You will feel your chest clenching, stomach flipping, and throat constricting.  You will feel like you are dying.

4.  You aren’t going to die (probably…yet.)

This stress response you might feel is because you are doing something uncomfortable.  In my past experience, if I felt wrong, I thought it was because I was wrong.  Take the time to congratulate yourself on making an empowered choice.  Go for a walk.  Make yourself a sandwich.  Call a friend and share how dang strong you are.  Bask in the glory of being a powerful human being.

When I was faced with saying, “No,” I wrote this blog post.  Then, I felt so anxious about it I never posted it.  Now, it is months later, and I cannot even remember what decision I was so anxious about, which brings me to my last point.

5.  Unless this is an actual life or death situation, it’s probably not that big of a deal.

It feels like a very big deal, but unless you are trying to decide whether to take someone off life support, go to war with a  neighboring country, or fight rabid dogs with your bare hands…it’s probably not that big of a deal.  It may be so little of a deal, that in a few months you won’t even remember what you were so upset about.  When your inner-dialogue starts rambling about how not going on that second date will result in you becoming an old crazy cat lady who lives in a dumpster, you can have that awareness that even though the decision feels scary it may not actually warrant such strong feelings.

Saying no isn’t easy for some of us, but it is necessary.  It’s something I have had to practice.  (Sorry, to all those guys I couldn’t break up with so I just disappeared.)  With practice, it does get easier, and it can even become quite gratifying.  Just today, I had to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”  It rolled off my tongue easily.  There was no drama or anxiety.  No big deal.