Yes I Cannot Say No

Can a Yes-Woman Become a No (to)-It All?

“You know how to do it, ” whispers the assertive angel on my shoulder, and yes, she sounds a bit like Lauren Bacall. “Just put your lips together and say, ‘NO!'”

I can feel the unfamiliar sound forming, it’s just a breath away from coming out of my mouth … then the word gets stuck in my throat. Inexplicably, my lips start moving and those other familiar words come out: “Yes,” or “Sure, I’ll do it,” or even worse, “Why not?”

Why not! Why not indeed!

Because I have too much to do.

Because I did it the last time.

Because I want to be at home with my family.

Because I don’t want to.

Because I, Leslie Dinaberg, am a yes-aholic.

There. I’ve taken the first step toward recovery.

Why is it so hard for me to say “no,” I wonder for the umpteenth time, as I sit here writing this column, at home, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, while my son and my husband are off enjoying themselves at the pool?

I wish I could blame this on an evil boss who piles on the weekend assignments, but it’s my own fault. I’m taking the day off tomorrow and I knew I’d have to finish this column before then … but all of last week I kept saying yes to appointments and obligations and assignments that I knew I didn’t really have enough time for.

And here I am, just another “yes-aholic” working on a Sunday, with no one to blame but myself. What’s so tough about saying “no?”

“No” was one of the first words my son learned to say. He mastered it by screaming the word at the top of his lungs, usually in quiet public places. He got so skilled at saying “no” that my husband and I even made up a song (to the tune of that “Meow, Meow, Meow, Meow” commercial) where the word “no” was the sole lyric.

We still perform occasionally when a toddler comes to visit.

If preverbal children can say “no,” why do I have such a hard time?

“Most women find it very hard to say no and set limits on what they do for others,” writes Judith Selee McClure, Ph.D. in Civilized Assertiveness for Women.

While most sentences that begin with “most women” are mostly never true, she does mostly have a point.

“Women are conditioned to say, ‘Yes, I’ll give you whatever you need or want’ — and to feel guilty when they don’t.”

Has McClure been spying on me or are there actually other yes-aholics out there?

When the “Y-word” comes out my mouth instead of the “N-word,” it’s not because I’m so toxically nice I can’t say no, and it’s not that I don’t think someone else can do the job as well or better than I can. That’s a lie, but it’s still not why I’m saying “yes.” Really it’s all about guilt.

As Erma Bombeck put it, “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.”

It sticks with you all right. Ask me a simple question and I can’t bear the thought of disappointing my child, my boss, my parents, my husband, the coach, the teacher, even the receptionist.

When they say, “Would you mind, the doctor/dentist/manicurist is running a bit late,” — of course I mind! But I’d feel like I was a terrible person if I told them so. That would imply that my time was equally as important as theirs. How could I be so selfish?

Because ultimately, asserting yourself isn’t about being selfish. There are lots of good reasons to stop saying “yes.” For one thing, saying “yes” when you want to say “no,” makes your stomach hurt and your head ache. You feel like you’re being taken advantage of, and then guilty because after all, you’re the one who said “yes.”

“You go girl,” cheers my assertiveness angel, who apparently doesn’t know it’s 2005. “No more ‘I’m just a girl who can’t say no,'” she sings, sounding more like Gwen Stefani than Celeste Holm in Oklahoma.

She’s right. And in her honor, I’ve devised a three-step program to help combat yes-aholism. I was going to do two steps, but my boss told me to do three. I said “yes.” Hmm.

1. Just say “no” and you and those around you will be happier. Always saying yes will only land you in places you don’t want to be, like therapy, divorce court, or with no friends to complain to because you’ve alienated them all by making them look bad because you do more than they do.

2. Just say “no” and you’ll have more enthusiasm, not to mention time and energy, for the things you do say “yes” to.

3. Just say “no” with a little bit of grace and your kids will learn by your example how to stand up for themselves and balance their goals with other people’s. You don’t want to raise little yes-aholics do you?

All together now, just put your lips together and say “no.” If that doesn’t work, keep your mouth shut, and turn your neck to the left, then turn it to the right. Repeat until the other person walks away.

Originally published in Santa Barbara Daily Sound on May 26, 2006.

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