The Year of Saying No: Advice from So Sad Today

From August 2018 to August 2019, I am only saying yes to requests out of a creative interest, a financial need, or a genuine desire to be of service based on love and friendship.

by So Sad Today; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
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Mar 8 2019, 4:55pm

Dear so sad today,

My ex-boyfriend has been asking me to help him with work stuff because he’s just learning to code and I’ve been doing it for a while. The thing is I really don’t want to do it or even spend time with him at all but I feel guilty if I don’t. I mean I know that I don’t owe him anything but then why is it so hard for me not to be there for him when he says he needs me. I’m the one who broke up with him and I honestly cannot imagine asking someone who didn’t want to be with me if they could help me out but it’s like he has no shame or maybe he actually does feel like I owe him.

Thanks,

valuable time

Dear valuable time, They say that sharing something out loud, when we are confused, is a form of prayer—and that often, once we have shared the thing out loud, we sort of intuitively know what to do. I think the same can be said for you emailing me, a stranger, and it is my guess that after sending this email you probably know what to do. I think you know that you need to set a boundary with the ex. But knowing we need to set a boundary and actually setting the boundary are worlds apart. So allow me to give you permission to do it. You asked why it feels so difficult to say no to your ex. I think that saying no, when it runs counter to our trained-instincts to people-please, can feel very uncomfortable. We might feel wrong, or like we are “bad” for saying no. We might mistake these feelings of uncomfortability for the idea that we should be saying yes. We might think that because saying no is itchy then it’s the wrong thing to do. Or we might say yes when we mean no in order to relieve that itch.

But discomfort doesn’t mean an action is wrong. Discomfort can mean we are doing something right—just different from what we are used to doing.

For years I experienced uncomfortable sensations when setting a boundary. Truthfully, it still isn’t the easiest thing for me. In therapy, I’ve practiced setting boundaries with family members, friends, or persistent strangers countless times. I’d prepare to do it. I’d feel confident that it could be done. But then, once I was out in the world, if I got the least bit of pushback I would always dissolve the boundary immediately. When my therapist asked what happened I would always cite my fear of being a “bitch” or of doing the wrong thing.

Really, I think what I was most afraid of was acknowledging my own needs: that I have them, that they are valid, and that they are just as important to acknowledge as someone else’s. I always preferred to ignore my needs. I thought that having needs made me more vulnerable to the world. I thought that if I had a need, and the need was rejected, this made me a “loser” somehow. It felt much safer to strive to be un-affectable. It felt safer to prioritize the needs of others, rather than acknowledging that my own even existed. But this past August, something strange happened. It dawned on me, for the first time, that I could say no to people’s requests. Maybe the revelation came as a result of aging? The closer I get to death, the less time I have for bullshit I suppose. Or maybe I finally just got fed up with saying yes to things when I actually meant no. Maybe I went one too many fake yes’s over the line. Whatever the case, I felt excited and inspired to practice saying no more. But I knew, from past experiences with trying to set boundaries, that I needed some sort of formal structure to lock my no’s into place. And so began my year of saying no. From August 2018 to August 2019, I am only saying yes to requests out of a creative interest, a financial need, or a genuine desire to be of service based on love and friendship. I do not say yes out of guilt, shame, insecurity or fear—especially not the fear of being seen as “a bitch” or “bad.” The year of saying no has been a huge relief. It has been a relief to be able to be real—to be forced to be real—because the rules are in place. Just when I start to feel the stress of an annoying request, another fucking thing to do that I don’t want to do, I remember: I have to say no!

The year of saying no has also been revelatory. I’ve actually been shocked by the nice reception to my no’s. It seems that most people are able to accept a “no” or a “sorry I can’t” without some elaborate explanation or mea culpa on my part. I don’t have to do a monologue, a one-act play, or a thesis statement on my inability to do something. I just say no. And as for the ones who can’t accept this, well, I’ve found that it’s not necessary for me to give a further response. Sometimes no response is the best response. Maybe you want to join me on the year of saying no? There are about five months left, although, I’m enjoying it so much that I’ll probably re-up again for another year in August. Or you could just start with saying no one time to your ex.

xo

so sad today

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