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Washington Voices

‘No’ still a powerful, useful word

Sat., Jan. 14, 2012, midnight

According to my mom, when I was about 2 years old I discovered the ultimate power word: “No.” If you asked me any question I’d answer with emphasis. “No!” In fact, I so relished wielding this two-letter word I sometimes used it when I really meant “yes.”

“Jill, would you like some ice cream?”


Who doesn’t want ice cream?

Most toddlers go through some form of the “no” phase as they try to exert a little control in a world where almost every decision is made for them, from what they eat and wear to who their friends are. Often the phase starts with temper tantrums, so the progression to words is a welcome improvement.

But I was an obstinate child and the “no” phase got old. So, my mom implemented what she called the toddler’s choice. She’d give me two choices. “Do you want to wear the red shirt or the yellow shirt?” While limited, I had options. And eventually, I stopped saying “no” to everything.

Each of my kids went through this rite of toddlerhood, though none were as pronounced and prolonged my own. Emily, for example, didn’t scowl and yell “no!” She negotiated.

“Emily, would you like some ice cream?”

“How ’bout a cookie?” she’d reply.

When I used my mom’s toddler’s choice tactic, Emily didn’t waver. “Would you like to wear the pink top or the green top?”

“How ’bout the purple one?” she’d answer.

Since most of her alternative options were reasonable requests, I usually agreed. She was learning how to use words to get what she wanted, a useful skill in life.

But I hope my kids never forget the power of that little word “no.” I did.

Through a combination of helpfulness, responsibility, love and guilt, as an adult I developed a habit of saying “yes” too often. This can be a problem when the opportunities to give, help and make people happy are endless.

About 18 months ago, I looked at my schedule and felt overwhelmed, like I’d swum too far from shore and only had enough energy to tread water. My tendency to say “yes” had choked out almost all of my free time. On top of the typical family and work obligations, my life was filled with additional appointments and commitments that left little room for some of the things I love – like playing the piano, going for a run, or reading a novel.

I wasn’t living. I was drowning.

When I described my frustration to a friend she said, “You need to put on your ‘No!’ shirt.”

It was time to embrace my inner obstinate child. While I didn’t shirk any of the commitments I’d already made, I stopped saying “yes” to new requests for my time and energy. I pulled out my old power word and put it on like a life jacket.

It was difficult, but I said “no” a lot.

It’s hard to tell the school volunteer coordinator that you won’t be bringing in a pot of vegetarian chili for the teachers this spring because you’re having a hard enough time getting a square meal on your own table. All the requests I turned down were for good things, asked by nice people.

Some, like the volunteer coordinator, were understanding. Others were disappointed and frustrated. Some made it clear I was letting them down. They’d come to expect me to say “yes.” A few used guilt, logic or emotion to try to change my mind.

After a while I learned to say “no” without explanation. It was enough that I’d thought through my schedule, energy, values and limitations. I didn’t owe anyone my rationale. And I learned that a simple “no” is an effective response because it limits rebuttals and add-on requests.

It took about 10 months before my new “no” stance had a visible effect, longer than my toddler phase. Sometimes, I wondered if I’d ever get to shore. Then I did. I could feel the sand beneath my feet. I could catch my breath. It was a long, deep breath.

Saying “no” cleared space in my life. Now, I’m ready to say “yes” again. But when the next opportunity rolls toward shore I’m going to consider the consequences before I swim out to meet it. And I’m taking my “No!” shirt with me, like a life jacket.


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