When to Say “No” or “Not Now”
Setting skillful boundaries is an act of self-protection and self-compassion.
Posted August 24, 2011
When I decided to write this piece, I reflected on the best way to assess if it would be wise to set a self-protective boundary and say "no" or "not now." What came to mind was what the Buddha said about speech. In essence, he cautioned us to speak only when what we have to say is true, kind, and helpful because then our speech will help alleviate suffering as opposed to intensifying it.
In setting wise boundaries—that is, in deciding if it's time to say "no" or "not now"—I suggest applying a variation of this three-part test by thinking about whether your speech is true, kind, and helpful to yourself.
Is it true to yourself?
Before speaking, think about whether what you're about to say is true to your values. Are you going to say something because of social pressure or perhaps just because it will impress others? I spent a good part of my younger years speaking in just this way, even if it didn't reflect my deepest values, and I suffered for it. I once smiled in implied assent (a type of speech) to a racist comment because the speaker had contributed money to my husband's political campaign; although it happened 25 years ago, I can still feel the self-incrimination arise as I write this.
By not engaging in speech that violates our values, we are, in effect, saying "no" to ourselves—"no" to speech that will intensifying our own suffering. We're setting a wise, self-caring boundary.
Is what you're about to say kind and helpful to yourself?
These two factors often involve looking at the timing. Maybe what we're considering (e.g., continuing to socialize even though it's exacerbating the symptoms of our chronic illness) meets the test of true, kind, and helpful to others, but given the limitations imposed by our health, it's time to set a self-caring boundary and, in effect, say "no" as in "no more socializing"!
Let me share a story from my own life that illustrates how I came to apply these tests in a way that allowed me to set skillful and compassionate boundaries for myself.
In the early 1990s, I left the comfort of the classroom to become the dean of students at the law school on the campus of the University of California—Davis. Little did I know the stresses and conflicts that awaited me. Student after student came in and poured out his or her life troubles to me, partly because I already had the reputation of being approachable as a faculty member.
I felt I owed every student 100% of my time and effort, even if it meant skipping lunch or working into the night. I never said "no." Students asked for help with difficulties I had no training for. Some of them should have been at the counseling center (which is where I eventually sent them). This work was in addition to the many administrative tasks I'd taken on—supervising the financial aid, placement, and registrar's offices—to name just three.
After a few weeks in my new job, I was utterly exhausted. I went home at night and sobbed to my husband that I'd made a terrible mistake by agreeing to take on this appointment.
But something else happened the same year I entered the Dean's Office. Four months after taking the job, I took a trip to Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County for the first time. Two women I'd never heard of were leading a daylong retreat: Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg. (Sylvia has now written the Foreword to my book How to Be Sick!)
This trip sparked an interest in reading more about Buddhism, not as a religion, but as a practical path to a more peaceful, contented life. I took myself to the main library on the U.C. Davis campus and checked out a bunch of books. In one of the books, I found this story from the ancient Buddhist texts:
One day the Buddha told a story about an acrobat and his assistant. The acrobat erected a bamboo pole and told his assistant to climb up it and stand on his shoulders. Then the acrobat said to his assistant: "Now you watch after me and I'll watch after you. This way we can show off our skill and come down safely from the pole."
But the assistant replied: "That won't do teacher. You watch after yourself and I'll watch after myself and in that way we can show off our skill and come down safely from the pole."
The Buddha said: "What the assistant said is right in this case because when one watches after oneself, one watches after others."
This story had a profound effect on how I approached this new dean of student's job. I realized that to do my best for the students, I had to watch after myself, even if it sometimes meant saying "no" or "not now." And so, I began the work that continues to this day of mindfully assessing whether what I'm about to say or do is not just true, kind, and helpful to others but is true, kind, and helpful to myself.
© 2011 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of four books:
How to Be Sick: Your Pocket Companion (for those who've read How to Be Sick and for those who haven't). May 2020
All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information and buying options.
You might also like "How to Ask for Help."