Ted’s essays

saying “NO” to myself

Living Freedom by Claire Wolfe. Musings about personal freedom and finding it within ourselves.


Claire Wolfe

Getting to No You

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

You’ve decided you need to say no. To new volunteer obligations. Impositions on your privacy. Visits from relatives. Extra projects at work. Co-workers who crowd you. Whatever. (Maybe even to government, but more about that another time.)

But somehow no never quite ends up meaning no. Because this request for your time is so vital. And that request is just one small thing. And because it’s easier to just do it than to put all that energy into refusing again

Real change has to begin with an ultimatum to yourself: No means no. No exceptions. No special cases. Above all no “Just this one time, please?” No. Means. No.

Because the first time you make an exception, you are dead. After that, everybody knows they can get what they want from you. And worse, you know you won’t stop them.

If you haven’t given yourself an ultimatum even stronger than the ones you’ve probably been trying to give other people, you’re doomed. You might say no once. You might say no twice, but in the long run “Just this one time, please?” is going to win because you haven’t effectively said “no means no” to yourself.

I know this. I am an expert in this subject. I have a Ph.D. in the field from long years of failure.



I’m hoping the failure to get to no is like quitting smoking, where I hear it takes some unholy average like seven attempts before the typical would-be quitter finally makes it. And even after that, you still feel the urge. But you don’t give in.

It better be like that — with potential for success even after many let-downs. Because otherwise life becomes the psychological equivalent of a hacking, gasping, hawking mess.

I never had trouble with cigarettes. I have lots of trouble with no.


This week, several people crossed my boundaries. Or tried to. I haven’t yielded. Yet just the irritation and frustration I feel has been a form of “letting them in.” I blame those people. And it’s true that they’re 100% responsible for their own actions. But I am far, far, far more to blame than they.

Saying yes when we ought to say no — or worse, saying yes when we’ve already said no but don’t have the gumption to hold our line — makes us like junkies who just can’t resist the fix. Except that unlike the junkie in the gutter of society, we “can’t say no” people get rewards. We get paid (sometimes) and we get perks and we get plaques and we get introduced and applauded during fundraising dinners. Yes, rewards.

To. A. Point.

Unfortunately, we “can’t say no” people usually end up somewhere in the bottom-middle or middle-bottom of whatever field we’re in. Because we don’t allow ourselves the ego-time to dream. To dream, dive fully into things, and work our buns off on our own priorities.

Again, it’s our own doing when we don’t reserve self-time. But how dare all those people keep trying to pull us off our path? To pull us past our very own (repeated) declarations of NO so we can serve their priorities? Why don’t they hear us the first time? Or the second? Or the third? Why do they put us in the position where we’re the bad guys if we don’t go along — again — with what they want?

Oh, but the needs are urgent! The causes profound! (And they often really are; charity being the natural profession for this sort of importuning.) You’re the only one who can do it! Your talents are so vital! And after all, “It’s just this one time …”

But the implication — and this is really weird when you think about it — the implication is that you’re so good (or so irreplaceable or so uniquely talented or such an excellent organizer or such a good guy) that YOU DON’T COUNT.

You’re so very, very special that you ought to give up your own priorities in favor of everybody else’s needs.

And that’s a hellova thing. Think about it. A HELL of a thing.


But that sounds positively Randian, which isn’t right. You’d be wrong to start envisioning people named Mouch and Starnes. It’s not just whiny “second handers” who pressure you to give up your own priorities for theirs. On the contrary, many of those who constantly try to push us past our own nos are major doers themselves. They’re achievers in part because are driven, have a vision, or just love what they do — and think you should go along. All of which contributes to how hard it is to say no to them.

But “no we must.”

Ron Johnson commented the other day:

I recently read that highly effective people have one trait: they control their time. They have a routine from which they don’t vary, and they do NOT allow interruptions or unscheduled visits. They say NO a lot.

I started doing that at the office. No more drop-by’s allowed. No more suppliers getting a meeting on their schedule. No more picking up the phone just because it rings. No, I say, not now. Get on my schedule when I’m ready for you.

It has transformed my ability to get things done, and it has lowered my stress considerably.

Smart man. And smart not only for the business world, but for capital-L Life.


Of course there’s that thing beyond NO that’s troublesome. Once you decree your life, your work, and your time to belong to you, you’re obligated to make something of them.

If you’re already doing a job that’s well-defined, all you have to do is do the job better or more efficiently once you’ve gotten to NO. That’s doable. But if you’re decreeing time and space for priorities you set — that novel you want to write, that cabin you want to build, those college courses, that extra quality time you want to spend with your family, that business you intend to start, that backpacking trip through South America you’ve always said you wanted to take …

Well, there be dragons.

There be the possibilities of failure. Of not being good enough. Not having the right “inspiration.” Of just being “lazy.” Of not following through for whatever reason. Of being “undisciplined.” Of FAILING — and now having only yourself to blame.

Oh, now it would be nice to have some of those other people around to pin things on!

Even if you have no great ambitions but simply want more time to read books, gaze out the window, and pet the cat, it becomes your sole obligation to savor every minute of it and not get distracted by your own little monkey-brainedness or old fears, grievances, and struggles that have a hold on your mind.

When you don’t write the novel, build the cabin, or enjoy all that cat petting as you expected to you have to face yourself and ask, “Is this thing I keep saying I want what I really do want? If it’s not, then what do I want, instead? And if it is what I want, then why aren’t I doing it?”

Dragons, indeed.


Ted Dunlap Says:
Once again, Claire, you make a solid hit to my solar plexis… or upside my head, I suppose is more accurate. Nice job, making me think, but what do I think?
Who am I?
What DO I want?
Of course I am saving the world, but WHICH of my crusades is IT?
Which one of my “I can do it” roles is THE ONE?
Gosh, which ones can I let die without risk; without real loss?

Where does my trombone fit? Learning the bass? Retarding my joint calcification with yoga? All that shooting practice I want to do? Getting my HF radio up and running? Finishing my shelving/cabinet work?

Crap! I could say NO to everyone else for a month and still … still what? Say NO to me??? What is the order I would put them in if I served nobody else?

There is a germ of an idea; a vague outline of a way to answer that in the fog of my brain. I think it is an important question to answer.

Yeah, that’s it. Just as soon as I get through this Field Day weekend as President of the local HAM club.