I am a writer, so words matter to me. I make a living from them. But for someone who places great value on their importance, (I often spend many minutes on just one word choice), it was staggering to realize how careless I was with my everyday speech. Why would I take so much care and act with such precision when communicating what my fictional characters felt and desired and yet be so cavalier with things that represent my needs and wants? Clear, direct communication is a foundation of success and part of its fulfillment. Being able to articulate what you want, what your abilities and responsibilities are and who you are is the bedrock of getting things done effectively.
How many times have you agreed to something but as the words are coming out of your mouth, you’re already regretting them?
If you’re anything like I was, the answer to these questions is: daily. If I wasn’t squeezing in an after-work networking event every night, I was busy apologizing to a friend that I couldn’t hang out on the weekend. It was always something. And while there are immediate consequences to this behavior—a constant state of low-level discomfort—it’s the long-term consequences that are far more troublesome. Saying what you mean is fundamental to personal power. The converse is also true—not saying what you mean will inevitably weaken you. And every time you do it, it chips away at your personal power, without exception, dissolving your self-confidence and silencing your true voice. And as a result, it makes it impossible get things done in a meaningful way. How could it be otherwise? You can’t move forward effectively if you aren’t operating as a whole version of yourself.
So let’s start with the smallest, but perhaps the most powerful verbal tweak you must start making right now.
Traditional thinking goes that to get ahead you must say "yes" to every opportunity that comes your way. And if what is coming your way is a door swinging open, leading you toward your true goals, then hell yes you’re saying "yes." If you dream of setting up shop as a florist, you only need your own permission (and a sense of your own value) to say "yes" to creating arrangements for your first wedding party.
What "yes" shouldn’t be is a blank check and for many of us it is. Having been raised to be agreeable, helpful, nice girls, women are prone to say "yes" to things without consideration for how it affects them. We’ve been trained so thoroughly to be helpful to others that it feels good to do it, as it reinforces a positive sense of self we were brought up to have. I bet just reading these sentences is setting off alarm bells. Is Erin telling me to stop thinking of others? Who will like me if I put myself first? Of course there’s nothing wrong with helping others. But the fact that asking you to think of all that you do for others without first considering yourself feels uncomfortable, shows you how the helpful/selfish binary is set up in way that’s profoundly unhelpful to women.
Here's when and how to say "NO."
- Get honest with yourself about what you want to do and what you don’t want to do but continue doing because you don’t want to disappoint anyone.
- Point out the problem. If you’re in a workplace where you feel you’re doing too much housekeeping and not enough of your actual job, let your manager know. Of course, this assumes a certain kind of closeness with your boss.
- Stop volunteering for things you don’t like to do and won’t affect you positively. Yes, women are asked to do more support work in the workplace but you can also stop raising your hand. This can be even tougher than saying "no." The urge to be helpful and to please is powerful. But ask yourself if people in positions of power at your workplace are doing these tasks.
- Just say "no." And then offer an alternative. “I’d rather not take notes again, as I’ve got a lot to add to this meeting. I don’t think Pete has taken notes yet—Pete, got a pencil?”
- Practice. If you’ve been someone who has always been agreeable, then that’s what people expect of you. It takes to time to retrain the people around you that you’re going to be looking out for yourself from now on. It’s OK, they’ll get over it.
- On the homefront, it’s more productive to ask your partner to pick up a job than to complain he or she isn’t doing it. Even if your spouse really should know that you don’t love booking every one of your kids’ music lessons, tutors and sports teams, if he hasn’t clued in, get that done. Rather than get into a “Who does more around here?” battle which will surely end badly, cut straight to the request. “I could really use your help with figuring out summer camps, can you take that on?”
- It gets better. Creating boundaries for yourself can be uncomfortable (for you and those around you) but if you stick with it, you’ll feel more at home in this new land of "no."
- Oh, 5. If you’re a manager or on your way to becoming one, be sure you’re not part of this problem.
Saying "no" with friends and family is even more difficult than saying "no" in the workplace. I used to pride myself on being an excellent friend, doing things like always having time to listen to any problem and trying my best to make myself free for drinks, coffee or shopping. But the second I couldn’t be available, I would feel an immediate resentment towards me, and I'd plan to "make it up" to them—all the while distracting myself from the very thing I needed to get done. As I continued along this path, I noticed that I felt like I was disappointing people, which really hurt. And yet, I started to grow resentful, because I was constantly having to compromise myself for everyone else’s happiness.
One day, when I was particularly upset at the guilt trip I had just received because I couldn’t meet for a happy hour drink as a result of a looming deadline, I became furious. I began to categorize every thankless thing I’d ever done for any of my family and friends and was now mad at everybody. When I started to calm down, I realized I was the problem.
Out of a need to please or out of guilt, I made myself available 24/7 and therefore set up an unrealistic expectation. People are always going to take whatever they can get—so you better set up boundaries and expectations that make sense, first and foremost, for YOU. This, by nature, can be a little challenging, especially if you’re already entrenched in unsustainable situations, but the importance for your mental health and the health of your relationships depends on honesty and the ability to say "no" with as much confidence as you say "yes."
Want to know what other words are really holding you back? You can find them all in my new book, How to Get Sh*t Done: Why Women Need to Stop Doing Everything so They Can Achieve Anything.
This article originally appeared on Working Mother.