‘Yes’ Can Lead To Stress

Here's how to say no without feeling guilty

Thank goodness it’s Saturday! Your workweek was scheduled to the hilt, and you are ready to kick back with a good book in peace and solitude. Just as you slide in to your favorite chair, the phone starts ringing. As soon as you say, hello, you realize it’s going to be a busy day. It’s your mother — she wants you to make a batch of your famous potato salad for an impromptu family barbeque at her house in a few hours. “I was just on my way out, Mom,” you fib. “Good. Could you pick up some extra hot dog and hamburger buns while you’re gone too?” she asks. “OK,” you mutter through clenched teeth. On your way to the store, you pray your calendar for next Saturday is clear.

We’ve all struggled with a time when we felt we just couldn’t tell someone no. Adanna J. Johnson remembers such an instance. In the spring of 2004, Johnson was finishing up course work at Marquette University in Milwaukee and making preparations to move to Texas to complete a yearlong internship requirement for her doctoral program in counseling psychology. She remembers accepting a number of separate requests for her time and attention during one already hectic week.

“I agreed to pick up a friend from the airport, go to brunch with another group of friends, attend a family get-together, and help out with a school function — on top of everything else I was trying to get done,” says Johnson, 28, a psychology intern at Salesmanship Club Youth & Family Centers in the greater Dallas area. She recalls feeling intensely stressed, anxious, and experiencing tension concentrated in her shoulders. “I was very tired, and questioned if I would be able to do everything. I just wanted to get through it all.”

Some people have a hard time turning others down — and suffer stressful consequences as a result. “Many of us grow up to be people pleasers,” maintains Linda D. Tillman, an Atlanta-based, clinical psychologist specializing in assertiveness coaching (www.speakupforyourself.com). “The word no drops out of our vocabulary and we substitute lots of ways to be agreeable and keep the other person happy.”

The art of saying no like you mean it is more than simply making a statement. Tillman suggests using your nonverbal assertiveness — a firm voice and direct eye contact while shaking your head — to underscore your words. She offers the following situations in which you can practice your “no skills” guilt-free:

  • To the clerk who wants you to sign up for a credit card
  • To the co-worker who asks you to take over a project
  • To the boss who needs you to attend a function but you have plans
  • To your friend’s pets when they jump on you

Tillman suggests that many of us subconsciously believe that saying no is a bad thing, and a word that can potentially cost us — a likeable image, for instance. Johnson, who did not turn down any of the requests, concurs. “On the one hand, I’m happy [when I say no] because

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