Laboring to Say "No"

By Paul Johnson, LMFT, LPC, NCC
(Originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL, September 2010)

In September there is Labor Day, a long weekend for not laboring in order to celebrate our labor, or our ability to labor. All 50 states observe it as an official holiday. It generally means an extra long weekend followed by a short workweek, and usually connotes the end of summer and the official beginning of football season. For my family, it is usually the last weekend at the lake or pool for the Summer, thus beginning the Fall routine that leads up to the Christmas holiday. Labor Day actually became a recognized holiday by Congress in 1894 in order to make peace with labor unions after a prolonged and rather nasty strike in the railroad industry. It was an effort to make amends. It was a holiday signed into law six days after the strike ended, and put in August in order to avoid stirring up negative emotions that might have occurred if it had been placed in May.

Kind of an odd reason to make a holiday, don’t you think? And a strange way to go about it: appease and avoid, pacify and protect. It was more of a reaction than an intention. By that I mean this: I like it when someone says, “This is worth celebrating. Why don’t we celebrate? Let’s celebrate!” Hearing that makes me feel valued and intentionally well thought of by someone. It is as if someone wanted to do something for me about me. As a reaction, it feels like someone is throwing the party as an afterthought, as an apology, in order to make up for something. The sentiment may be nice, but it does not speak of great value; instead, it speaks of deprived value. It feels like an obligation, which is mostly about me feeling better about the other person, rather than the other person simply feeling good about me. I don’t want to sound ungrateful or seem to be looking a gift-horse in the mouth, but this kind of living-by-obligation is a rather frequent occurrence. Our motivations for others are frequently and liberally peppered with “this-will-make-me-look-better”-itis (as in “appendicitis” or “tonsillitis”—inflamed organs that need to be removed because rather than contributing to health, are taking away health).

We do this all the time. ALL….. THE…… TIME!! We do this when we say “yes” too quickly; when everything within us screams to say “no”. We often do not say “no” to someone because we do not want that person thinking “bad” or ill of us. Because in the South, to say “no” is hurtful, harmful, and can cause permanent pervasive long-term damage (I recognize you can’t see my tongue sticking my cheek so hard it’s about to pop through). Problem is, we commit to do something that we sometimes do not have time to do, or are not good at, and then do a bad job or a half-done job and everyone is frustrated and we are right where we did not intend to be (being thought “bad” of) because we did a half-done or poor job, or did it and are exhausted and feeling under-appreciated or that the other just wasn’t grateful enough. “Jeez!!! What’s the point? I was just trying to be nice!!”


All of this could have been avoided if we politely had said, “Thanks, but no.”

It is easy to say “yes”. It is the universal way to get ahead in life and to get people thinking well of you. The actuality is that it can be “the dark side of the Force, Luke.” It can be too quick — to get the reward of acceptance before you do the actual work. Acceptance and trust are fragile things, and take a long time to earn, and a longer time to re-earn if ever broken. Not following through on a commitment to the appropriate level of expectation is one way to damage or break a reputation and a trust. Saying “yes” before you are ready or capable can do more harm than good.

An article in the Living Section of the Birmingham News in August (2010) talked about job stress being at an all time high; that more people were seeking help through their employee assistance plans and counseling for job related stress than any other time since the year 2000. I can’t help but wonder if much of the stress is attributed to the quick “yes” and the inability to say “no.”

It takes serious work to say “no.” “No” comes across as “being mean,” but it is actually a sign of respect and trust. You really demonstrate trust in a relationship when you tell a person “no.” You actually show self-respect by not subjecting yourself to something that does not fit you or is beyond your personal limit, and you respect the other person by saying their request is worth more that what you could offer at that time.

Saying “yes” all the time can set up a person for exhaustion and burn-out, and can keep other people from reaching their potential. Oftentimes, telling my son “no” ensures that he learns for himself how to do something, and teaches him not to be lazy (especially when it is all about getting his cup out of the fridge).

Saying “no” seems to come at cost, but it is only short term. It might frustrate the other, but that frustration is very small in comparison to the frustration you both may endure when to what you said “yes” is not satisfying or done satisfactorily.

Work at saying “no.” It is a labor that is worth your time and energy. When you have a “no”, then your “yes” really becomes “Yes.” And that’s worth celebrating.

To talk further about boundaries and increasing your ability to say “no”, or to say “yes” and mean it, please consider LifePractical Counseling for your counseling or consultant needs. You may reach us at 205-807-6645, or contacts us via our website at Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist and professionally licensed counselor in the state of Alabama. And he is glad that football season has returned; though this year, with three boys in the house, is not sure how much he’ll actually get to see.