Learning to Say No

I remember a time in junior high when I found myself committed to something every night of the week: Bible study on Monday nights, drama practice on Tuesday nights, youth group on Wednesday nights, piano and voice lessons on Thursday afternoons, and regular youth social functions on Friday nights. Add homework, discipleship group meetings, regular church attendance on Sundays, and quality time with family and friends to that mix, and my thirteen-year-old body was about to drop dead from exhaustion!

The thing was, these things had crept into my life so quietly, so subtly, and so . . . naturally. I had signed on to them because they seemed a part of who I was, or who I imagined myself to be. When my mom expressed concern and gently suggested I tone down my involvement in so many things, it was hard to agree with her that this needed to happen. Eventually, I agreed to drop the drama group.

This is a tame version of my inability to say no.

Less tame are the compromising situations I faced in my dating life while growing up. Or the early marriage I stepped into after calling it off for three months. Or the tacit acquiescence to values not my own in group settings. The more I say yes, or choose to say nothing, when my gut says I should speak up or walk away, the more I feel my dignity, my self-respect, and my basic sense of self slip through my fingers.

Now I find myself in a season where flexing the "no" muscle is being required with greater regularity. For example:

* I was invited last month to act as the public relations liaison for a new film society on campus. I said yes immediately, being excited by the prospect, but then felt the discordant strum in my gut that said it was a distraction. I tried to back out the next day, but then ended up agreeing to come for the first few meetings on a trial basis. I finally told the president -- just today -- that I need to withdraw my involvement.

* Additionally, I volunteered myself a couple weeks ago as the key actor in a film shoot for the first installment of the film society's ad campaign. As the shoot date dawned upon us, it slowly occurred to me and Kirk that I had signed up for 1) a chase scene 2) at night 3) in a wooded area 4) when I had no health insurance to speak of. My "can't say no" self died at the thought of backing out at the last minute, but my more rational self said it was a risk too steep to be worth it for a small student club film shoot with no official campus oversight. I called the director with the bad news that I couldn't make it. Thankfully, he was gracious and another student filled right in. (I also got my health insurance worked out the next day.)

* A classmate of mine who wants to go into screenwriting also has been working on a fantasy/sci-fi novel for the past handful of years. When he learned that I'm a writer and have also worked in publishing, he asked if I'd be willing to discuss his stories with him. I said yes, since that sort of thing interests me and I enjoy helping people, but then realized later that I don't actually have the time outside of class to give to something like this. I had to tell him -- again, today -- that I can't commit to this after all.

The thing that bothers me about each of these situations is that a lot of trouble could have been saved if I'd just thought it through ahead of time and said no at the beginning. Instead, I gave my commitment and then backed out later. This not only diminishes the strength of my word in the eyes of others but also leaves them in the lurch. Facing this reality three times in a row in the space of one week has been a powerful way to learn that I want my yes to be yes and my no to be no. It's hard work! But I'm glad to be getting the practice, and following through on my gut instinct eventually, even if not immediately.

* Post-note: I should also add the additionally embarrassing fact that the key person I had to break my commitment to in each of the three stories above was the exact same person each time. Talk about humiliating and really feeling like your word means nothing to someone anymore. Argh!