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How To Stop Saying Yes When You Really Mean No

First, you have to get to the root of the problem.

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"why Are You So Busy?"
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A friend, whose company I truly enjoy, asked me over for coffee. “That would be great,” I said, “maybe this weekend?” But as soon as the words exited my mouth, I regretted them. I didn’t want to have coffee with her this weekend. My plate had been so full over the previous few weeks and it was my first weekend in months without my kids, their sports and my own writing assignments. I was completely and totally burned-out and the only thing I wanted to do with my upcoming weekend was nothing.

I dreamed of two days without anywhere to be and anything to do. I wanted to lazily enjoy the weekend from my couch in my pajamas with no need for a clock, and I knew that I deserved just that. But I didn’t want to let my friend down and somewhere deep in my core, I felt as if saying no would somehow make me less likable. It would leave me in a panic for hours wondering, Is she mad at me? Instead, I said yes and spent the next few days wishing I could get out of it, but wasn’t brave enough to actually make that happen.  

I was left full of resentment toward said friend: “How dare she put me on the spot like that?” and “Gosh, isn’t she so needy?” 

In reality, however, she was being a kind and thoughtful friend. I, on the other hand, was being a woman incapable of speaking her own truth. How simple would it have been to say, “I’m sorry, but I have been so busy and I made a commitment to myself to just regroup this weekend.”

I ached to be that woman, the one who says no guilt-free and honors her truth consistently.  I have lots of other examples of seeking others’ approval, only to end up resentful and wishing I were the type of woman who freely says no.

Pleasing other people — or seeking their approval — has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. So much so that my kids or my ex-husband would openly laugh and joke with me about my all-too-eager willingness to agree to do things and then complain about them oh-so-loudly. For a long time, I joked it off, too. That’s just me, I thought as I lived with the very resentment and dread that I myself created. But recently, I stopped accepting this as part of me. I was sick and tired of spending my free time (and living my life) the way others wanted me; I was living an inauthentic life and I hated it.

So, I admitted that this approval-seeking was a big problem and I made a commitment to change.  

First, I had to get to the root of the problem. Why did I need the approval of others so damn bad? I started digging for the answer. Every time I said yes and meant no, I sat in the feeling of resentment and forced myself to look at what led me to make that decision. Here is what I learned: For years I believed I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t worthy, and I wasn’t lovable. I learned that I could silence these voices of self-hate with approval from others. Doing what others wanted was a quick and easy way for me to feel approval, which was a substitute for the self-worth, self-love and self-esteem that was missing. In other words, my behavior filled a void:

Pleasing others seemed to feed the holes in my soul and my heart. But it didn’t work so well. Instead of leading to self-love and a full heart, I experienced resentment. I feared letting others down or rejecting them, or not doing what they expected of me. If I did let them down, then I would feel even less worthy, lovable and whole. I could feel worthy, loved and accepted only when I pleased others.

And so, a cycle was born: Feel crappy about self, please others, feel better, feel resentment, repeat. With this knowledge in hand, I set out to make a change. It wasn’t easy, and I didn’t see results overnight. I wasn’t magically able to say no just because I wanted to, either. I did, however, become consumed by my own commitment to change. I started talking about it as often as I had an audience.

I wrote about it (a lot), and I scoured the internet for stories of other women like me. I knew that self-love and acceptance were the key to success, and so I vowed to love myself with grace. I looked in the mirror and said, “I love you.” I made a list of all the things I was proud of myself for — like being sober for seven years and learning to say I am sorry to others.

I made a list of my flaws and accepted them or committed to improve them. Most importantly, I forgave myself. I forgave myself for the years of alcohol abuse that negatively impacted my children and everyone else in my life. I forgave myself for not being perfect and for living a life that strayed so far off script than I could have ever imagined.  Slowly, my courage grew. I was ready to say no to others.

When I did, I told myself (over and over) that my own love and acceptance was all the approval I needed. Slowly my self-esteem and self-worth improved, and I realized that anyone who truly liked (or loved) me would still like or love me if I canceled a dinner date or said no or disagreed with them. Slowly I learned that true love isn’t conditional — and that the love I was cultivating for myself was enough.

Best of all, the courage, self-esteem and love that I was building meant that I now get to live an authentic and honest life.