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Serving Others' Interests While Neglecting Your Own

Protect your time and assert your interests.

You take on things that you really don't want to do. Your neighbor asks you to write up a brochure for her yard sale. You cringe at the thought of refusing. You acquiesce. Your cousin asks you to put together a fund raiser for a political candidate. You hear, "You do wonderful work. The community would be grateful." You don't want to disappoint your cousin. You acquiesce.

Try too hard to please and you may find yourself chained to other's itineraries that you neither have the interest nor the time to do. You tell yourself that you do this extra work later. You drag your feet. You catch flack for delaying. You fall behind on your priorities. You short change yourself.

At first you may not expect things to turn out badly. But the same results happen by habit. You feel stretched, stressed, and overwhelmed. As you repeat the pattern you feel bewildered as to why you don't just change on command. Part of the answer is that positive change is a process, and you are hoping for a magical cure.

When burdened by saying yes too often, you may imagine the pleasant feeling of freedom from acquiescing to other's agendas by strategically asserting the word no. You understand that you'll feel more in command of yourself. However, there are bumps in the road ahead.

It is challenging to change a habit of saying yes when you're better off saying no. That is because positive change often involves a struggle where you forge resiliency and new habits through the fires of adversity. However, you can wait and hope for an easy way out. As you wait you may feel like a character sitting on a bench in Samuel Beckett's play, Waiting for Godot. Godot never comes.

Overcoming Acquiescence

This time stop and reflect. Do you hear beguiling procrastination thinking? Tell yourself, "I'll do it this time and then no more," and you found a procrastination distraction.

You can resist unreasonable social persuasion by advanced planning. Instead of dancing with distraction, focus on building confidence in your ability to decide when no, yes, or maybe is the wiser choice. Think things out then apply what you figured out. Here are five sample considerations:

  1. You may recoil from a whisper of negative affect when you think of saying no. So, you politely hear out a proposal and let the other have a foot in the door. Nevertheless, no, in its various versions, is a useful word any time in a conversation.
  2. A quick review can put things into perspective. What do you gain by agreeing? How much time will this take? What are you likely to give up? Is this a reciprocal process where you gain by giving?
  3. Phrases, such as, "I'm sorry, I don't have the interest," can also get the point across. "I'll think about it" commits you to do nothing other than to think about whether you'll agree.
  4. Stop a conversation in mid-stream when it is clear this is heading where you don't want to go. You'll feel less worked-up and depleted and more able to act with enlightened self-interest.
  5. Here is an approach that many of my clients found useful for dealing with pushy people who won't take no for an answer. Flip things around. Trade something from your to do list that you especially don't want to do. Base an exchange of services on a mutual time commitment. Don't be surprised to hear, "I don't have the time" (for reciprocity).

Feeling free to say no makes it easier to say yes to worthy projects you truly want to do, or where reciprocity and cooperation is a two-way street. You may choose to volunteer time for a cause that you believe is worthy, or to do something for a friend. You are better positioned to decide when no is expedient and will lead to a big opportunity loss further down the road.

A path to contentment is paved through exercising free choices. A paving stone on this path is the freedom to say no when you mean it. You may not know what this path of freedom feels like until you experiment with responsible choices.

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