How do I say no and feel OK about it?

How do I say no and feel OK about it?

A colleague in a business program in which I’m also a participant shared that he chose to say no to two people this past week and he found it hard. He said that he felt heavy and sad about these two situations. “I don’t know if it’s guilt or shame or what, but my inner critic is now trying to find me and kick my ass.” He asked, “What do you do when the choice is between you and another person, and you choose yourself and disappoint them?”

There are so many injunctions among heart-centred and spiritual folks relating to showing care for one another. It matters so much to us to live our values, so we can create the world of our dreams. At the same time, how do we balance this care for others with care for ourselves? Is it ever OK to put ourselves first? And if so, how can we do this in alignment with our values, and without being egotistical or self-centred?

This is the first in a four-part series on how to say no and feel OK about it. It’s not only about saying no to someone else, but also, in a way, saying no to yourself as well.

There are four principles to keep in mind:

  • People have many strategies for meeting their needs.
  • People are affected when you say no to a strategy they care about; be present for that.
  • Mourn the unfulfilled needs – theirs and yours.
  • Saying no to one thing means saying yes to what I’m saying yes to – rest in that and maybe share it.

Needs and strategies

One theory of behaviour—it’s one I endorse because it contributes to making my life more wonderful in many ways—holds that every human action is an attempt to meet a universal human need. The actionsKitten looking confused and saying "She keeps saying no. I wonder what it means."may be disastrous or even suicidal, but even so, they were a valiant attempt to meet a need that is universally shared by all humans, across time and culture.

For example, my colleague John chose to work on his own on a project he had initiated in co-operation with another person, Simon. John said no to continuing to work with Simon. I’m guessing John wanted ease. I’m thinking that working with another person on this particular project required more effort, time and negotiation than he had imagined when he embarked on it.

You might like to take a moment now to imagine what ease feels like to you. Imagine you had been feeling stuck in a situation that took more effort than you wanted, and now you’re not stuck anymore. Ahhhh, the relief… the sense of spaciousness… or maybe there are other words for what you’re feeling inside related to ease. It might be more or less important to you in this moment, and at the same time, you can relate to it. It matters to you, at least to some degree.

Now maybe you’d like to imagine a way you experience ease. Maybe it’s a good nap… a trip to the beach… a massage… maybe the relaxation you feel after a hard run… there are many kinds of experiences or activities that lead to an experience of ease.

This is an example of a universal human need, and as you can see, there are many ways to meet it.

Let’s consider Simon’s needs in this story. He and John were working on a teaching project together, and Simon was less experienced and well-known than John was. Simon could have been wanting to learn new skills. He might also have wanted the opportunity to earn some money, which could have been a strategy to meet a need for sustainability.

Perhaps you can relate to learning new skills. You might not enjoy it, and at the same time you can see how it could be important in certain situations in your life. Maybe you can also relate to sustainability, to how important it is to be able to take care of basics like food and shelter. Learning and sustainability are also what we could consider universal human needs.

We need to be able to learn things in order to deal with life, and we need to be able to sustain ourselves. Click To Tweet

Thinking of it in this way, can you see how Simon’s strategy of teaching with John is separate from his needs for learning and sustainability? And can you see how, with learning and sustainability in mind, Simon might be able to find more options for meeting those needs, in addition to teaching with John?

But how does all this help John? As I mentioned above, the first principle in saying no and feeling OKCat looking unimpressed. Caption says, "no."about it is reminding yourself that the strategy to which you are saying no is only one of many for meeting the underlying needs.

So for John, as he holds Simon in his heart, he can also hold in his mind the thought that teaching with him is not Simon’s only way to meet needs for learning and sustainability. John can hold Simon in his heart, remembering that Simon is a beautifully autonomous and empowered human being who has many ways of taking care of his needs. Because of this, ultimately, Simon will be OK. John is not responsible, in an on-the-hook kind of way, for meeting Simon’s needs. Simon is. John can celebrate autonomy, choice and empowerment.

But, you may be asking, what about Simon’s feelings? Is this just a fancy way of thinking that lets John off the hook and gives him carte blanche to do whatever he wants?

That’s what I’ll talk about in part two: people are affected when you say no to a strategy they care about, especially if they think it’s the only one available to them, and especially if they aren’t experiencing the no as a celebration of their empowerment. How do we deal with that and still feel OK?

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