As a former people pleaser, it’s a word that I hated: no. My overtaxed schedule was proof that I dodged saying it any time I could. I had a notion that I was following God’s will for my life and loving my neighbor as best as I could, but I was frequently tired and burnt out.
After I got married and started having children, I slowly started to realize that there was something wrong with the way I was living. As a single person, if my schedule was packed and I was running from one commitment to the next, I was really the only person who was suffering. Now that I had a family, my first duty was to them. I realized that I had an immense responsibility as a mother to my children and as a wife to my husband. If I was saying yes to anyone who asked, I couldn’t give my best to my family. I couldn’t give them what they needed. As I took a step back, I realized that the way that I had been living was not healthy even for a single person. I gradually started pulling back from commitments and actually discerning something before I said yes. It was hard, but I could see that it was the best thing for myself and my family.
Once my child with special needs was born, this problem came into sharp focus. Our life quickly changed, and with it, our priorities. Suddenly, I had to flex my “no” muscles a lot more often. I had to say no to things that I had already said yes to. I had to say no to “professionals” who were recommending something that I did not think was right for my child. I had to say no to family and friends who were kindly offering things that didn’t work for us.
Once when we were living in a small apartment, a well-meaning physical therapist brought over a large jungle gym to encourage my son to climb and crawl. It was such a kind thought, but it was massive. It literally took up the whole living room and blocked the door to the bedroom. There was nowhere we could keep it, no corner of a room to stash it in, not even a place to leave it outside. The therapist had brought it over more as a statement rather than a question: “Here you go!” I thought I was going to be sick as I mustered up all my courage and said, “Thank you for the thought, but I don’t think that’s going to work for us.”
Another time, I had a very kind neighbor who would pop by unannounced. She did this out of the very best of motivations. She knew that life with a lot of little ones and special needs was difficult, and that sometimes I felt lonely and disconnected from the community. Unfortunately, her kind impulse caused chaos. My son with special needs would go nuts everytime someone came to the door. My other young kids followed suit, and it would take me a good half-hour to restore calm after a five-minute visit from this lovely woman. I finally brought myself to tell her that I loved seeing her, that I loved her visits, but that it was difficult on my children and me to have people come over without advance notice. She was so understanding that it helped me gain confidence in expressing my needs to other friends and family.
It has been a long journey for me, but I have seen how saying “no” enables my family and I to say “yes” to the life that God has planned for us. If you are struggling with saying no, I want to encourage you. It’s okay to say no to people that you love. It’s okay to say no when someone asks you for something or invites you to something. Your reason does not have to make sense to them, and you do not have to “explain yourself.” Saying a well-discerned “no” is actually a loving action, both to yourself and to the other person. The truth will set us free, and in the truth we will find love.
If you are a people pleaser or struggle saying “no,” I can heartily recommend the book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. A priest recommended it to me in confession, otherwise I probably never would have picked it up. The title made me wary that the authors were going to persuade me to be a self-centered narcissist. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was written from a Christian perspective, and reading it gave me great tools and resources to live a life that I feel is actually a gift to God and others.
Jane Stanley is a wife and a mother to five children. She reads, writes, and homeschools in Central Virginia.