I found myself getting stressed out and verging on the hairy edge of grouchy just a few minutes ago. The frame for the context felt SO familiar. I’d gone down a long list of steps and tasks and provided support through some personal and client difficulties and I’d been taxed in my roles to the point where I’d hit the “no zone”. The “no zone” is where there are some choices to be made and the wrong ones can be very impactful- but negatively. The “no zone” is when resources are taxed and there isn’t an immediately actionable answer for the deficit.
Eventually, there’s a “one more thing” on the list and it’s time to nope out of that. The kids need one more outing. They want one more trip to their favorite fast food joint or one more drop off to that new extracurricular they’ve signed up for. The boss wants one more project on the list or one more meeting to squeeze in at the end of a long day. The “no zone” is a place to avoid. It’s a place where being stretched is normalized and where objections are sometimes viewed as the starting point for negotiation that is designed to benefit the asker rather than the performer of the favor or task.
When in the “no zone”, the best that can be managed is to take the shortest path to an acceptable exodus and devote some resources to not being there again. We’re not speaking here of the organic growth in our roles that comes with long experience and practice of the crafts that we live by. We’re speaking of a kind of cancerous “creep” in these contexts, whereby demands have been accommodated but no countermeasures of resetting expectations or trimming other areas of responsibility have been implemented. The result is often a sense of entitlement from past recipients of our efforts, favors and giving.
Clients, children, community members and companies often overlook reasonable limits to function in a role in favor of normalizing standards of performance that aren’t sustainable. To put it bluntly, requests are accompanied by attempts to cajole or to compel an answer favorable to the asker. “Say Yes to the Dress”- remember that show? The whole premise was to allow the setting of the shop and the vision of what a “perfect” wedding day could look like to dictate the purchase of a bridal gown. On a much smaller scale, the askers in our lives have their own visions in mind of the outcomes being sought. Fitting things into the budget, resources available or schedule is a process that requires a high degree of both self-awareness and integrity.
So- what happens when the budget, resources and schedule are cannibalized? I know someone who is in desperate need of housing, income and a fulfilling life plan that is allowing her housemates to use her car, allowing herself to be made the chief cook and scheduler and allowing herself to be stymied in her efforts to get her ducks in a row due both to her anxiety and due to these distractions. It’s been painful to watch. She knows that her housing situation is temporary. She knows that she’ll need a car, a place to stay and support services.
Somehow, though, she’s still operating as if things are normal for her. Under extremes of stress and duress, the options are customarily fight, flight, freeze or fawn. If circumstances are creating a context that feels very “high demand”, responses can be skewed in one of these four directions. Sometimes, we don’t even know why we agreed to do what the asker requested. It’s a reaction. What’s needed is a response. In intimate contexts or in interactions with people who have power over some aspect of comfort, livelihood or wellbeing, the temptation is to continue down the well worn path of agreement.
“Sure, I can pick that up for you.” “You want to bring your friend to our reception? Okay.” “I don’t really have time to take that project on… but, I guess I can figure it out.” Everyone makes their own choices. It’s important to be certain that agreements are acceptable, authentically given and equitable before committing to perform that “one more” item on someone else’s list. Things sort themselves out for people who are a little too agreeable. Eventually. But often at a higher cost than is reasonably warranted. The lack of clarity in those situations doesn’t help with planning next steps. Anxiety is the enemy of authenticity in most cases, and will push us towards what seems to be the path of least resistance.
And- when we can’t speak with authority and clarity around the use of our own resources, they are often misappropriated by others. It’s a weird little momentum piece to the way that our days are lived out. Think about it, who do you know that you could NOT ask for an accommodation such as emergency childcare, an emergency loan of money or an emergency ride to the airport? With some people, it would simply be inappropriate.
For example, the likelihood that your boss will drive you to the airport to catch that redeye flight in order to save the cost of an Uber is pretty low. But your mom? Sure, she might. Sometimes we make the mistake of acting as if our agency in these matters is held in common. Nope. But- if you’ve had soft boundaries and have set the precedent that others can rely on your “yes” more often than not, then it’s time to reset. Because while our charity and generosity is needed now more than ever before, so too is our mindful management of the resources that are on hand.
Becoming habituated to moving through our days as if everything is normal when dealing with escalated care needs, diminished energy and practical resources can be a necessary adaptation in some contexts. The difficulty lies in normalizing the extraordinary. Gymnasts and ice skaters at the Olympic level make it look easy as well as gracefully beautiful when they perform. It’s easy to focus on the outcome of their efforts instead of being mindful of the rigorous and regimented practice schedule that they committed to fulfilling and submitted to tolerating. Inevitably, impacts on their time with friends, family and other leisure, academics and even sleep were all impacted. What if they’d allowed the askers in their lives- friends, fans and family, to dictate their schedule? Their preparation would have been impacted and so too, would their outcomes. Good-bye gold.
In like manner, parenting children through their reconfigured academic and social lives while working and managing the home requires committing to a rigorous practice of self-management and submitting to an ongoing introspective inquiry as a means of developing a robust self-awareness. If managing these roles previously could be summed up as keeping all of the plates spinning on their poles, it currently could be summed up as keeping these same plates spinning in an environment with twice the gravity pulling at things to stop.
Everything requires more force of engagement and more focus of awareness and more tolerance of farcical complications to ordinary processes and routines. So, along with practicing deep breathing, clarity around boundaries and supportive routines that account for your own needs, break out the “nope”. It’s time to get negative, but in a good way.
Practice with me: “no”. See? That wasn’t so bad. When you know an ask is coming, decide ahead of time whether you prefer to say “yes” or “no”. Then, avoid getting into JADE. There’s no need for someone else to agree with your “no”. They might try to make you uncomfortable by withdrawing connection, by making it seem like you’re the only solution or by becoming sad or having a tantrum. Don’t engage. You don’t have to justify your decision, argue about it in order to convince the asker, defend your perspective or explain your decision until the other party is satisfied.
You have to do your own responsibilities within your roles, sure. Bills? Pay them. Children? Care for them. Community? Support them appropriately. Friends? Balance the give and take authentically and organically. Job? Fulfill your duties with excellence and look for opportunities to gain new skills. Pets? Walk them, water them, love them and feed them. Partners? Prioritize time with them and perform your part in the household that you share. Spiritual life? Fulfill the practices that align with your beliefs and values while retaining your own agency and developing your own perspective.
Every other ask? Has to get in line for consideration and prior beneficiaries of your time, talents and other largesse outside of your ordinary fulfillment of your roles? Practice that positive negativity. “No.” “Nope.” “That will not be possible.” And then stop. There. Because if you proceed to detail your logic, limitations or leanings of opinion with respect to the ask, you’re not deciding. You’re negotiating. At least, that is how it will seem to the asker, who will address each statement that you make in support of your decision as if they were a Harvard lawyer arguing before the court or a politician convincing the voting public of their fitness for public office.
Everything that you say “no” to is a means of being able to say “yes” to the things that matter to you. These are first on the list. As a sacred being with a singular combination of values, vision, talent and context, no one else can fulfill your unique contributions. Respect for your own agency and for your own necessary boundaries- it’s more critical to be mindful of these things in situations where everyone is feeling the pinch of performance expectations and the absence of many customary supports.
Don’t always go to the back of the line. It’s quite all right to go first. Don’t always take the leftovers. When it’s your person, your purse or your performance that are being requested (or required) to engage, remember that there are limits to what any one person can reasonably do. Don’t let yourself get beyond the outer limits of your own agency or resources before you begin to consider saying “no”. Say it early. Say it often. Say it masterfully. Say it mindfully. Who knew that a negative could be so powerfully and positively impactful?
If you struggle with feeling like you are free to say “no” when it’s appropriate or even simply preferable in your own eyes to do so, take a little time to practice! A few iterations of reminding yourself to decline some requests or demands will strengthen your own felt agency and enhance your felt experience of daily life. If you could use a little help in gaining clarity around where you want to say “no”… or “yes”… call one of our caring coaches. We’re here to help!