The Power To Say No

Have you ever been in a position where you were asked or expected to do something you didn’t really want to do? Think back to such a situation: How did you react to the question or expectation that was posed to you?

Did you acquiesce to the expectation, and do what you were told, even if you didn’t like it? Or did you refuse, and experience hostility, ostracizing and a potential burnt bridge?

Believe it or not, but your answer to this seemingly minor scenario has pretty huge implications: It can affect your happiness, health, well-being, and overall success in life. And no, I am not referring to those who said yes as being happier and more successful, but the opposite: It is the people who possess the power to say no, that possess the power necessary to succeed. Intrigued? Read on.

Some of us may be thinking: “But, I don’t want to be labelled as ‘being difficult’ or ‘disrespectful’.” Or, “I may not like doing it, but I don’t want to go against the majority. If doing it won’t kill me, what’s so wrong with saying yes? After all, it’s just this one time.”

Although the scenario posed above is indeed a minor one, it is one we experience repeatedly over the course of our lives. Can you really be sure it’s just going to be ‘this one time’? Consider the following scenarios:

    • Your boss drops a piece of work in your in-tray 5 minutes before you were planning to knock off work to catch a movie with your girlfriend. He says it’s urgent, and he expects it on his desk first thing tomorrow morning. Do you sacrifice the movie to complete the work?
    • You are invited to attend a Chinese wedding of someone you don’t know well. The wedding dinner is held at an expensive restaurant, and Chinese custom dictates that guests should give the wedding couple a ‘red packet’ that contains enough money to reimburse the newlyweds for the cost of your seat at the banquet. Do you bite your lip and attend the wedding?
    • You have been planning to switch careers to pursue another line you are more interested in, and your boss gets wind of this. Before you can hand in your resignation, he has a face-to-face talk with you, explaining how much it would mean to him if you completed a major project he assigned to you a few months back, which is currently still far from completion. Do you assure your boss that you won’t leave until you have finished the project?
    • It is the custom in your workplace that when you are promoted, you and your fellow promotees are expected to treat the entire department to a buffet lunch. However, due to a quirk in your company’s promotion policy, you are the only one promoted this year. Colleagues are already asking when the treat is going to be held. Do you take out your wallet and dial the caterer?

    If your answer to all the above questions is ‘yes’, you care deeply what others think of you, even more than what you think about yourself.

    Don’t believe me? If you said yes to the above questions, think about why you said yes. The most common reasons for saying yes are as follows:

    1. I don’t have a choice.
    2. It won’t be very nice to say no.
    3. I don’t want to burn bridges.
    4. Saying no would make things very unpleasant.
    5. I am okay with making a personal sacrifice to make someone else happy.
    6. I can’t go against the culture here.
    7. I heard of someone who said no to something like this before, and bad things happened to him.

    We live in a society, and as members of a society, we owe a certain level of social responsibility to each other. The power of the society lies in its ability to ostracize and marginalize people – to make them outcasts – if they do not comply with certain social norms. From a young age, we are taught what is expected of us – how to behave and how not to behave. More importantly, we become inculcated not only with a strong desire for others’ approval, but also a great fear of others’ disapproval. It is this fear of disapproval that makes us say yes, so as to avoid an unpleasant reaction from our colleagues, our friends and our boss.

    I’ve always been afraid of saying no to people because I don’t want them to be disappointed and dislike me.

    – Elizabeth Gilbert

    There is nothing wrong with complying with social norms – most are good and necessary for our society to function effectively and harmoniously, such as being law-abiding and considerate towards others in public places. However, there comes a point where complying with a norm is no longer about benefiting society at large, but rather a certain specific party. And if you would rather grit your teeth and say yes, placing this person or group of people above yourself, then what you have done is to give them the power to control what happens to you in your life.

    I have lived by one crucial principle since I was 24 years old. I don’t blame or complain about things like the economy, the government, taxes, employees, gas prices, or any of the external things that I don’t have control over. The only thing I have control over is my response to these things.

    – Jack Canfield, Motivational Speaker

    What is so bad about giving others this power, you may ask.

    For starters, due to the frequency of such situations like those mentioned above, you will feel forced to do many things you don’t want over the course of your life. This can lead to resentment and bitterness – which affects your emotional and mental well-being. Over time, this can result in physical ailments as well, due to our mental and physical health being very closely interrelated.

    Secondly, you get seen as a “Yes-Man”, which means you get viewed as a pushover and someone who is easily manipulated into doing what other people want. Maybe this might help your career and relationships in the short-term, but think about what the cumulative effects of giving in are doing to your self-confidence and personal image. If you don’t respect yourself as a person with the freedom to make your own decisions, why should anyone else respect you and your freedom to choose?

    You have a right to say no. Most of us have very weak and flaccid ‘no’ muscles. We feel guilty for saying no. We get ostracized and challenged for saying no, so we forget it’s our choice. Your ‘no’ muscle has to be built up to get to a place where you can say, ‘I don’t care if that’s what you want. I don’t want that. No.’

    – Iyanla Vanzant
    Thirdly, you develop a very blase attitude towards life. When you view life as a roller-coaster you have no power to control – something you’re just along for the ride – there is not much point in doing anything. You won’t bother to try pursuing what you want to do because you know others will oppose it, and you would rather give up your dreams and aspirations than risk these people becoming upset. With such a mindset, life becomes a constant struggle to make it “good enough”, rather than a desire to live life to the fullest.

    One remaining point to be tackled is this: Is it really true that saying no will lead to a negative outcome? It is definitely true that saying no will upset some people, and sometimes they may be people very close to you. Perhaps you may feel that saying no to them is a sign of disrespect. This is not true. Respecting someone does not mean giving in to their every whim and desire. You may be thinking about whether you are respecting the other person, but what about the other way around? What about that person’s respect for you? If the person truly respects you, he would be able to accept you making a decision for yourself. If he cannot accept this, then perhaps it is a sign that he does not have – and probably never had – your best interests at heart. Do you want to continue associating with such a person?

    You may be thinking that saying no can make things extremely unpleasant. This is a barrier most people are afraid to overcome, thanks to our conditioning by society to avoid uncomfortable situations. Well, get this: If you don’t overcome this and continue avoiding such situations your whole life – you will never get anywhere, let alone where you want to go. Is that the kind of life you want to live?

    A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.

    – Timothy Ferriss, Author of The Four Hour Workweek
    If you are someone who has dreams and aspirations you feel no one will ever understand or approve of – if you are someone who feels that nobody cares about what you want to do or don’t want to do – then it is time to take that power back for yourself. You, and only you, have the power to determine what choices you make in your life. There is always a choice, and I hope that today, after reading this article, you can find that confidence within yourself to put yourself first, and never look back. It’s not about being difficult, and it’s not about being selfish or inconsiderate – it’s about realizing that nobody can stand in the way of your dreams and how you want to live your life.

    Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so you can say ‘yes’ to the best.

    – John C. Maxwell
    Did you enjoy reading this article? Leave a comment or share it with your friends!
    Have trouble finding your passion? Read on how to find it here!
    Know what your passion is but afraid to follow-through with it? Find that courage here!
    Don’t know what is worth fighting for? Discover the power of living a life based on ideals and principles here!
    Constantly unhappy with the way your life has turned out? Learn how to get happiness back in your life here!
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