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How to Say No

When my daughter was little, I posted some affirmations up around her room. On heart-shaped post-it notes were statements like, “I am funny” and “I am kind.” In return, she made some affirmations for me.

I walked into my bedroom to find the walls plastered with pink hearts. Every last one of them read, “Say NO.” Out of the mouths of babes, hey?

I used to have a problem with saying no. I was afraid that people’s feelings would be hurt, or that they wouldn’t ask me to do things again if I declined. As a result, I constantly overcommitted myself and – to be honest – was a bit of a flake. I forgot engagements. I hurt people’s feelings. Sometimes, my inability to say no even compromised my safety.

It’s ironic that the one thing I was most afraid of – hurting people’s feelings – is the very thing I ended up doing by spreading myself too thin.

Since learning to say no, my life has gotten easier. I’m less busy, and a lot more sane. I’m truer to my word, and commit to activities that I really value. Two little letters, N-O, constitute a complete sentence. No need to complain or explain.

For those of you still on the hand-wringing side of saying no, here are some tips to make it easier:

Be simple, direct, and kind. No need for lengthy explanations.

Buy some time by saying, “Can I get back to you on that?” This gives you a chance to check in with yourself and formulate what you really want to say, and how to say it.

Remember that saying yes when you mean no invites stress into your life. As they say in the 12 Step traditions: you can have boundaries or you can have resentments, but you can’t have both.

What would you say no to if you had the courage?

The Wonder of Wonder

I love the quality of wonder. It evokes curiosity, exploration, and the humility to simply not have all the answers. When we wonder, we ask questions. We open our hearts and minds. We are as children.

Clinically, wonder is a very useful tool. When first learning mindfulness skills in therapy, clients often judge themselves quite harshly. For example, they might become aware that they feel anxious, or that their mind is racing, or alternatively that they feel nothing at all. Almost without fail, their inner dialogue will then run something like this:

“I’m doing this wrong. I’m such an idiot. I’ll never get it right. Nothing will help me. I hate mindfulness.”

Interestingly, this is the opposite of what mindfulness is meant to teach us, and where wonder comes in handy. Imagine simply noticing your feeling state, and exploring it without judgement. The inner dialogue might sound quite different:

“I notice that I’m feeling shame/boredom/anxiety/frustration.”

And that’s it. No judgement – just awareness, with a mild curiosity. No need to have the answers; no need to do anything at all. When we explore with open-hearted wonder, we can befriend ourselves with kindness. Of course, it takes practice to unlearn our adult ways. The poet e.e. cummings once wrote,

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

What small thing can you do today to cultivate the quality of wonder?

Slowing Anger Down

Anger has a fast, hot, destructive quality, and those that struggle with it know all too well the remorse and shame that result when they have let it get the better of them. The trick with anger is to slow it down.

One of the best ways to do this is to become aware of your body’s signals that tell you you’re getting angry. Ask yourself:

How does my body feel when I’m upset?

Maybe you get hot, clench your jaw, or start breathing faster. Your body’s cues will often let you know you’re angry before you consciously become aware of the fact. When you start to become aware, try to excuse yourself from the situation. If you’re with someone, tell them:

I need to take a time out.

Let them know when you’ll be back (you don’t want them to feel abandoned), and if that’s not possible, just leave. If this seems dramatic, imagine the alternative. It’s often far more destructive.

Engaging in a short burst of physical activity is often enough to discharge excess energy. Alternatively, you can try some soothing activities: deep breathing, clenching your fists and relaxing them, taking a bath. You want to move the body from fight-or-flight to a place where you can think more clearly.

Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” So, change your consciousness!

Practice these skills when you’re calm, so that they’re second nature when you really need them. No emotion lasts forever: give anger a chance to unwind, and it will. Rather than picking up the pieces of a harmed relationship, knowing our own anger signals can help us celebrate the victory of successful communication.

How does your body let you know that you’re angry?

Grandmother Wisdom

Years ago a healer said to me, “Go home. Nurture your inner grandmother. Put on a bathrobe. Make yourself some tea.” In high school Sister Josephine started her lessons with, “Listen to your grandmother.” Since then, I have learned all sorts of things about what Grandmother Wisdom has to teach us.

In this world that rewards stress and calls it high efficiency, it’s important to remember (and sometimes, to learn) that slowing down is a strength, not a weakness.

Have you ever had an injury that forced you to renegotiate how to move through the world? Maybe you’ve worked yourself into exhaustion. Whatever your journey, if you’ve ever felt that you “just couldn’t do it anymore,” Grandmother Wisdom has something to teach you.

As I write this, it is a bright white, snowy, late winter afternoon. I have my downstairs couch pulled out, blankets and pillows propped, wood stove burning. Three puppies are at my feet (an extra one today – heaven!). I’ve had a hard day and this is my way of healing. It grounds me back into my most cherished values: safety, freedom, wonder, magic, and love. I keep chocolate in the house because another teacher told me that grandmothers keep treats in their houses. It makes people feel better.

Grandmother Wisdom is really simple common sense. But it’s kind. It’s indulgent. It takes time.

Writer Gertrude Stein said, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” Artist Georgia O’Keeffe said, “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.” These women are speaking the language of Grandmother Wisdom.

What might you be missing by moving too fast?