Learning to say no
For many years, I have been a “yes” girl. I just can’t seem to help it.
Want me to make a random road trip just about anywhere with you, despite having neither plan nor budget? Yes.
Want us to meet you for pizza even though I’ve already prepped family meals for the week? Yes.
Want me to read your poem-essay-story-novel-in-progress, read submissions to your journal, or judge participants in your contest, even though you can’t pay me and I already don’t have enough time for my own writing? Yes.
Want me to watch your child/dog/house over the weekend, even though it’s prime time for me to catch up on that writing, plus I promised my family my full and undivided attention — and my husband that we’d (finally) use said weekend to work uninterrupted in the yard? Yes.
Want me to teach another class, even though I won’t make enough money to cover childcare so I can actually teach the class? Yes.
You get the picture. I have a hard time saying “no” to just about anything, whether it’s for something wonderful (friends, food, vacation) or something not (more work for me). Perhaps, dear reader, you are also a “yes” person? I have a feeling we’re not alone in the world.
That being said, I don’t know why you’re like this. But I have two theories as to why I am.
One, I come from a “yes” family. Growing up, our motto was, “Plan your work; work your plan.” I cannot tell you how many times my sister and I heard our father say, “Make it happen.” We were, by far, the only kids we knew making pro-con lists and goal-setting … in the fourth grade.
Two, I am, in many ways, a stereotypical older child. Though hard-headed and independent (i.e. I like to do what I like to do when I like to do it), I am often desperate to please. Perhaps more importantly, I am desperate not to disappoint anyone.
This need to please hasn’t changed over the course of my lifetime, and I expect that when I finally engage a therapist, it will be one of the four hundred things we discuss.
For example, I recently had to say “no” to a place I love: the college where I teach. As an adjunct (read: part-time) professor, I schedule my classes around my daughters’ school and childcare needs. It hasn’t made financial — and, let’s be honest, emotional — sense for me to teach classes outside of this schedule, which would involve hiring more childcare on top of that for which we already pay. Plus, I’m way-too-aware of the fact that my baby only has a year and a half left of preschool.
She types, choking back a sob.
Which means that, in my current, part-time role (also read: part-time pay), I’m able to teach one class only. Last week, my boss asked if, next semester, I could teach two — one of them being an upper level class I’ve been itching for, involving two of my big loves: literature and the environment. The caveat? There’s also a freshman composition class I’ll need to teach, early in the morning, which starts before my kids are due at school and preschool.
Oh, I agonized over this. Why? Well, back in January, my husband and I decided that in 2017, my main goals should be to devote more time and energy to two things: our daughters, and my writing career. After such a decision, saying “no” should’ve been a piece of cake.
Alas, saying “no” is never easy for someone like me. I like to say “yes.” I like to help; to take part. I worry that — despite the fact I’ve been a loyal adjunct professor at this college for 12 years—saying “no” will have a negative effect on the potential growth of my career there.
Also, there’s the whole “need for people to like me” issue. Another of the four hundred I’ll need to discuss with my future therapist. Heaven help her.
Here’s what I did: I took a deep breath and told my boss I was happy to teach the upper level class, but wouldn’t be available for the introductory course. That, after 12 years of teaching freshmen writers, I was taking a personal sabbatical.
There’s been a bevy of literature published over the past few years focused on women taking on more of everything in the workplace. We’re being urged to “lean in,” to make this our “year of yes.” Normally, this is my kind of advice. Normally, I’d respond to this advice with a fist pump and a “Heck, yes!”
So while I’m not making this my “year of no,” per se — because I’d need to rewire my brain for that — I am making it my goal to learn how to say a graceful “no.” Not all the time, but when it matters most.
Talk to Katherine: Katherine Scott Crawford is a novelist, adjunct college professor, hiker and mom.
Contact her at email@example.com.