Recently, as part of my mindfulness practice, I decided to experiment with saying “yes” to everything.
It was an exercise recommended specifically for the “aversive” Buddhist personality type, with which I identify, so I thought, let’s give this a shot and see what happens!
It didn’t go so well.
My first test was when I had to call my bank to get a fee reversed. The women said she could help me with the fee, and then said, “If over the course of our conversation I recognize any products or services that might help you, would it be okay if I discuss them with you?”
I had much better things to do than listen to her trying to sell me something I don’t need, so I politely said, “No, thanks.”
She had to transfer me to another department, and that guy asked me the same question. Reflexively, I said, “Nope, that’s okay.”
Then the next day I was in Ralphs doing my grocery shopping, and I walked by a woman who was giving out free samples. “Would you like to try a Root Beer float?”
I wasn’t hungry, so without even thinking about it I said, “No, thank you though.”
And then later that day I got one of those automated calls from Kaiser, who have been calling me ever since I gave them my info a year ago as I was looking up different health insurance options for my boyfriend. The robot voice asked me, “Are you Peter?”
“Can you take a message for him?”
Is it okay if we call you again?
“NO.” (That damn robot will anyway).
Why we need to say no
Even just a few days of trying this “say yes” experiment made me realize that saying yes all the time may work for Buddhist monks in Burma, but it doesn’t really work for the rest of us. We live in a culture where friends, family, advertisers, solicitors, coworkers, bosses, etc., are often asking us for things that we simply do not have the time, energy, or money to say “yes” to.
And sometimes there are things we want to say yes to, but it would take away from our ability to prioritize our own values, projects and goals. Yes, I’d love to go to your dinner party, but I haven’t spend time with my family in my week, and that comes first.
Why we don’t say no when we should
Unfortunately, we often get roped into responsibilities that we don’t want just because it’s so difficult to say no. It can feel awkward or uncomfortable to say no. We may worry we’re going to hurt the other person’s feelings.
Over the course of this article, however, I want to show you that setting limits does not need to be scary, and does not need to alienate you from others. It actually can help improve your relationships because you won’t be resentful of people for “making” you do things you don’t want to do.
As a psychiatrist, learning how to say “no” is basically a training requirement. I’ve learned how to say no even if it means someone is going to file a complaint against me, or yell at me, or threaten me (trust me, I’ve got some pretty amazing stories about this).
I have learned that I have to do what’s in the best interest of the patient, which (especially in a hospital setting where there are some very sick and difficult people) is not always what they want.
I am always in a process of evaluating and setting limits with people. Here are they key lessons you need to know.
People don’t hear what you say, they hear what you do
This single point is so important it bears repeating. People don’t hear what you say, they hear what you do. Let me give you an example.
One of the limits I have to constantly set with patients is when it’s okay for them to page me. Yes, like your common drug dealer, I have to carry a pager every day, 24 hours a day, in case of an “emergency.”
However, about 95% of the time that I’m paged, it’s not an emergency, and something extremely routine that could have easily been handled by calling my voicemail during regular business hours.
So a while back I was paged by a patient asking for a medication refill. He was a new patient so I explained clearly that paging was just for emergencies, and that it was disruptive for me to interrupt patient care to field pages for non-emergencies, and that in the future he should call my voicemail number.
He expressed that he understood and wrote down my voicemail number. He apologized and said he wouldn’t do it again. He said he just needed a medication refill, and I said, okay, I’ll call it in right now to your pharmacy. And I did, immediately.
So should I have been surprised when only a week later I got a page from him for the exact same issue?
No, I shouldn’t have! Because he did not hear what I said, he heard what I did.
He did not hear me say not to page me anymore for non-emergencies. He heard me say, “Any time you want a medication refill you can page me and it will get done quicker and easier than if you leave a voicemail and wait for me to call back.”
So this time, I handled it differently. I cut him off immediately and asked if this was an emergency.
“Well it’s just that…”
I interrupted him. “An emergency is when you are feeling suicidal, or psychotic, or need to go to the hospital. Are any of those things happening?”
“Well no, I just need you to…”
I interrupted him again. “Please call my voicemail and leave a message. I’ll call you back as soon as I can.”
So he did, and I purposely waiting a few hours before returning his call, and then we had a polite 30-second conversation, and then I refilled his medication.
Sure, it would have been easier for both of us if I had just refilled his medication when he paged, but then I would have been creating a bigger problem for myself in the long run.
I can assure you than this time he heard , “The quickest way for you to get your medication refilled is to leave a message on my voicemail and wait for me to call you back. Paging me will just waste your time.” I haven’t gotten a page since.
Think about if you’ve had a similar experience. Have you ever told someone firmly that you can’t help them, or that you won’t put up with their crap anymore, or that you can’t lend them money again… but you will just this one last time?
They don’t hear what you say, they hear what you do!
Be direct, even if it’s uncomfortable
I was chatting with a friend the other day who’s been having trouble setting limits with her sister. Her sister will always come into town unexpectedly and want to meet up with her, but be flakey and inconsistent with her plans. Inevitably my friend will be left hanging for hours waiting for her sister who never shows up.
I asked her what she says to her sister when she comes into town to avoid getting caught in this situation.
She told me, “Well I make excuses, I tell her I have a yoga class or something. But then she asks me what I’m doing after yoga, and I tell her I have to go grocery shopping. But then she asks what I’m doing after grocery shopping, and say I’m going home to spend time with my husband. And then she asks me what I’m doing after that, and she doesn’t understand that there’s no “after,” and that we’ll be hanging out the rest of the night!”
I hope my next question is as obvious to you as it was to me at the time.
“Well, don’t you ever just, you know, tell her no, that you won’t be able to hang out that day?”
“Well…” she said. “I guess not.”
It’s amazing how people will hem and haw, make excuses, and beat around the bush, all because it feels so uncomfortable just to say “no.”
Get used to the sound of “no,” coming out of your mouth, because if you want to stay sane, you’re going to be saying it a lot. And if someone’s not hearing your “no,” it’s your fault for not being direct enough.
Which brings me to my next point…
People can handle “no” a lot better than you think
Often we say yes to things just because we’re afraid we’re going to hurt the other person’s feelings or make them feel bad. But trust me, as someone who’s had to say no in some pretty difficult situations, even to the point where I’ve accidentally crossed that line into being rude, people can handle no a lot better than you think.
Try it and you’ll see. In my experience, the response is typically something like, “Oh, okay… Well anyway, I was talking to David the other day…” The other person will probably move on faster than you will. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.
If you ever make a mistake and say no and later regret it, or feel you were too harsh, you can always go back an apologize and change your mind. People won’t hold it against you.
If you ever do come across one of those few people who freaks out at the prospect of getting a no, or is rude or threatening to you, then that’s on them, not on you. It’s not your responsibility to make everyone around you happy, all of the time.
Let people experience the consequences of their actions
Often we say yes to people we love when we don’t want to because they get themselves in difficult situations and we don’t want bad things to happen to them. I definitely can recall my parents bailing me out a few times when I was younger, and I appreciate that they did. And teenagers, in general, have a limited ability to control their impulses.
Let’s say, though, that you have someone in your life who is an adult, with a fully-developed prefrontal cortex. And no matter how much you help this person, he or she keeps getting in the same bad situation, and you keep bailing them out – you’re sending a pretty clear message.
The message is, “You can mess up as much as you want, take no responsibility for your actions, and I will always be there to inconvenience myself and pick up the pieces.”
And you may feel you’re helping, but trust me, you’re not doing that person any favors. He or she will never learn that certain actions have consequences. You may say, “If you keep doing this, X and Y and Z is going to happen.” But remember, they don’t hear what you say, they hear what you do! If you keep bailing them out, they will never learn any different.
What about you?
Do you have any other thoughts or advice about how to set limits and say no? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!
Photo by Marc Falardeau