Learning to say no

It’s fun­ny how this sim­ple thing has elud­ed me for so many years (and still eludes me from time to time). Something as sim­ple as say­ing no”,I won’t”, “I can’t”. I’ve spent so many years run­ning after time, say­ing yes all the time, abid­ing to things I didn’t want to do, invest­ing ener­gy I didn’t have, forc­ing myself to be some­one I wasn’t or to do things that only pulled me down fur­ther.

But I wouldn’t say it was a fear to say “no” in fact. I think it was going way deep­er than not being able to say that. So I took some times to work on myself, but also to under­stand what I real­ly want­ed, what was the pur­pose I defined for my life, what were my healthy bound­aries … I must say that this was the most ter­ri­fy­ing blank page I’ve ever faced. While I did read many books about “dis­cov­er­ing your­self” (some even joked on the amount of self-help books I was read­ing), I must admit that when the time came to write what were exact­ly “my rules”, I was star­ing in the void like a dead fish.

So I turned the prob­lem around, search­ing for all the things that pissed me off, or where I failed in the past years, my errors, my mis­takes, to try to define some­thing by remov­ing the fog around them. If I couldn’t express exact­ly what I want­ed to, at least I would be able to express exact­ly what I didn’t want any­more.

Failure shows us the way — by show­ing us what isn’t the way.
 — Ryan Holiday (The obsta­cle is the way)

By doing so, I was able to clear the fog almost com­plete­ly, allow­ing me to define my per­son­al bound­aries and some moral rules I want­ed to abide to. I real­ized also that we all have a finite amount of ener­gy to give each day, and that I was clear­ly deep into debt on this side. The worst part? Most of this ener­gy was lost into things that didn’t bring me any­thing.

I dis­cov­ered also some of my flaws. Like how I was post­pon­ing tasks for the sake of treat­ing them lat­er (hel­lo pro­cras­ti­na­tion), while act­ing direct­ly on it would require just 5 min­utes of my time (and espe­cial­ly keep my mind cleared of it). Or how much time I could spend use­less­ly com­plain­ing about things (with­out act­ing). At this time I decid­ed to stop com­plain­ing as much as I could, and to act direct­ly on things that would take only a very small amount of time. I still com­plain from time to time, I must admit, but every time I do say, I notice it to myself, and try to find how to avoid it for the next time. Still not per­fect, but improv­ing.

I real­ized also that I had a ten­den­cy to avoid things by going side­ways most­ly by fear or hurt­ing oth­er peo­ple. I spent a lot of time think­ing I was doing the right thing by using those so-called white lies. But it’s by read­ing Lying by Sam Harris that I real­ized that those weren’t use­ful.

First they made me feel bad, and I had to be weary of every­thing I was doing not to con­tra­dict them, and sec­ond they didn’t give any real infor­ma­tion and kept me in a spi­ral. How could I stop doing things I didn’t want to do if I nev­er said that I didn’t like them? I was hav­ing a hard time just being myself. So I decid­ed to stop. To slow­ly learn to say exact­ly what I want­ed to do, what I didn’t like, … I was sur­prised to real­ize that peo­ple were able to accept my lim­its and weren’t push­ing me any­more to do things I didn’t want.

The truth nev­er harmed any­one. What harms us is to per­sist in self-deceit and igno­rance.
 — Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)

Going deep­er in the process, I dis­cov­ered sev­er­al oth­er things impor­tant to me (first and fore­most hon­esty and speak­ing the truth, on which I’ll write some­thing deep­er lat­er), allow­ing me to see exact­ly where I was and where I was going. This allowed me to be able to trace a line in the sand to be final­ly able to say ”no”, this is where I stop, this is some­thing I don’t want to do, this is some­thing I won’t tol­er­ate or accept any­more.

This whole process took me quite some time (in fact it stayed two whole months on top of my to-do list), but once done gave me a peace of mind I’ve nev­er felt before, and a feel­ing of relief quite impress­ing. I also regained a lot of per­son­al time, and while I still have an impor­tant social and work life, for the first time in a long time, I must say that I feel in com­mand of my ship, and free.

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Simon Vandereecken

Freelance UX Designer living in Brussels (Belgium), with a deep interest into philosophy, personal growth, self improvement, books, music, ... well in many things ! I use this website to write thoughts going through my head as well as ideas, observations and reading notes. Feel free to get in touch ;)