The Art of Saying “No”

“Every wooden chair must stand on its own legs.” – My granny


When I was in the ninth grade, one of my classmates called me almost every night so that I could help her with our biology homework. The problem was that my “helping” usually took the form of me simply giving her the answers. When my grandmother discovered the purpose of these phone calls, she got on the telephone and told my classmate that it wasn’t my job to do her homework and to not call our house anymore. The classmate obliged. Not only did she never call me again, but she stopped talking to me at school as well. And she managed to receive a passing grade in Biology without my continued help. You’d think I learned my lesson after that, but fast-forward almost twenty years later, and here I am again.

I have a colleague whom I’ll call “Jack.” After recently lamenting about how much work he had and how overwhelmed he was, Jack asked me if I could take over one of his projects. Is he serious or am I on candid camera right now, I thought as I laughed to myself. It turns out that Jack was serious, that he was unfamiliar with the term “time management,” and that he was suffering from the delusion that I was his assistant or subordinate employee. However, I couldn’t blame Jack for having so much nerve because he was a monster I had helped create and entertained for far too long. What started out as my benevolent intention to help a new co-worker evolved into daily tutoring sessions. These sessions ranged from me sending him sample letters to my re-writing a sentence or paragraph under the guise of flattery (“J, you’re the wordsmith. How would you rephrase this?”). I occasionally proofread his memos and even took over an important assignment that was due while he was on vacation, only to discover that he had placed my work product on his letterhead and passed it off as his own.  Not only was Jack a user, but he was an indignant user: a person so narcissistic and with such a profound sense of entitlement that he turned into a stalker when someone wasn’t readily available for his use. He’d email, call and text me all day, every day because he needed help with something. Despite his efforts at friendly banter, each interaction with him inevitably ended with “I need,” “can you,” “while I have you on the phone,” or “while you’re here.” And my favorite transitional phrase of his was: “not to cut you off, but….” Cutting me off was exactly his point – to cut me off so that he could get to the real purpose of his visit/call, which was to discover another way of avoiding work.  However, I found my inner “beotch” the day Jack asked me to take on this most recent assignment. I summoned my inner granny, albeit a much more diplomatic version, and politely told Jack “No.”   

Jack and Little Miss Bio are “users.” We all know people like them. That person who only calls you when they need something, or who always seems to need something whenever you speak to them. They always need to borrow your money, credit, couch, clothes, food, or even your identity. And then one day, you finally have an epiphany: the “I’ve been hoodwinked for the millionth time and I’m not gonna take it anymore” epiphany. Or, the “I’m tired of folks and I want my time and space back” epiphany. After all of your giving, you finally realize that your user is always a taker but never a giver. It becomes clear to you that your sole purpose has been to serve their needs. Like Jack and Little Miss Bio, many users are often very charming. But, that’s all part of their act to suck you in. Sometimes pity is also part of their act. Once you emerge from a fugue induced by their pseudo-friendliness or other acts of manipulation, you recognize a hard, unsettling truth: users are hustlers and you have been hustled – over and over again. Ladies and gentlemen, there is only one way to deal with users: just say NO. Cut ‘em off at the knees, nice and sweet.  

Granny used to always tell me, “Never esteem anyone higher than yourself.” Your time, feelings and needs  are just as important as anyone else’s. If you don’t work to preserve your own peace of mind, folks will steal your last good nerve. So, do not let people abuse you. It’s often hard to tell people “no,” because we feel guilty, don’t want to hurt their feelings, feel obligated to take care of others, or desire acceptance and friendship. Users may be needy, insecure, lazy, or incompetent. But, at the end of the day, you are not their therapist, life coach, personal assistant or mother. Nor are you a sanitation engineer, meant to clean up their messes. The user in your life will find a way to survive without your continued enabling, or they will drown trying. Practicing the art of saying “no” will spare you much drama, headaches and stress. And if your user really gets out of hand, then cock your head to the side, raise your eyebrow, and let out a “Hell No” for the road. If you say “no” enough times, they won’t come back, no more, no more. Hit the road Jack, and don’t ya come back no more!

6 thoughts

  1. Your are so right! We have to learn to let the things and people go that do not add value to us. Energy is a terrible thing to waste.

  2. Excellently put! I’ve been dealing with someone just like this for years now. I’ve said no thousands of times and yet he persists. If I could put permanent division between us, I would. But I would end up alienating others on whom I depend (his parents are my landlords; his twin brother my best friend). He is the most narcissistic person I’ve ever known in my life. Every “no” means “maybe” because he’s certain he’ll eventually get a “yes”. Then he goes through a stage of hating me and calling me names followed by the same expectations all over again as though the hating stage had never existed. Yet, I persist as does he – I don’t answer my phone or answer my texts. He’s taken to using his parents’ phone to circumvent my refusal to answer his calls. I will now not answer calls from their number because they will leave messages. When he takes his brother’s phone to call me knowing I’ll definitely answer, I hang up as soon as I hear his voice. None of this deters him. He has become a stalker. In fact, his number comes up on my phone as Stalker. It’s the most draining experience I’ve ever had. Everything revolves around him; how it affects him, how it will hurt him, how it will help him, etc. It doesn’t matter what “it” is – even if it is the illness of a family member. It’s how it reflects on HIM that is important. He’s a societal leech sucking the lifeblood of everyone around him.

    Obviously, you can tell I got caught up in your blog entry. You are a most excellent writer.

  3. Wendy,

    I first need to take a deep breath for you because hearing about your leech’s tactics just wore me out! lol. You need to do a leech intervention! Although you have mutual associations with said leech, you need to Just Say No and stick to it. Even when he tricks you into answering the phone, or tries to make you feel bad by calling you names (WTF!) or not talking to you (Why can’t he just keep doing that. Bye!), your answer still needs to be no. If finding a new place to live will make it easier or more comfortable for you, then do that. As for your best friend, he knows how trifling his brother is. I am sure disassociating yourself from the leech will not ruin your friendship -and if it does, then you never really had a friendship to begin with. Unless Publishers’ Clearing House is trying to reach you because you won a million dollars, no one should be playing that many games on your phone. Unless he’s the IRS, you shouldn’t have to dodge his phone calls. Your sanity and feelings are just as important as those of the leech, your best friend, or your landlords – who created, nurtured and enabled the bratty monster leech. Take back your sanity and feelings, Miss Wendy! The only way to do that is to Just Say No!

    I know it’s easier said than done, but you will feel so much better if you learn to tell folks “no.”

    Thanks for stopping by, and good luck!

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