The first time I heard this phrase it was declared by Oprah Winfrey. She was on tour in Australia and my gorgeous friend Mark had bought me a ticket for my 40th birthday. Mark knew I was a mad Oprah fan (and had been since forever) and he was right in thinking it would be a much appreciated gift.
It was The Best Gift ever!
On top of the thoughtfulness of my present, Mark spoilt even more by getting me a front row seat. Being this close to Oprah – the woman I had watched on daytime TV since I was 14 years old – had me in a total tailspin. I should mention that Oprah has always been one of my top five “Celebrity Dinner Party Guests” that I’d have over (I love her so much that she is actually the first person I would invite!).
During the evening Oprah told us a story of how Stevie Wonder had asked her to help out on a project of his. It was many years before she had risen to fame but she says it was one of the most defining moments of her life. She was completely torn because she was very busy at the time (and therefore didn’t want to do it), but she couldn’t stand the thought of saying no.
What if Stevie no longer liked her?
What if this meant she was a bad person?
What if, by saying no, she would implode and life as she had known it would be over???
Oprah believed that she could not say no to Stevie, and I think this sort of dilemma is something the rest of us experience too.
During her talk, Oprah spoke about how her partner Stedman said that she could quite simply say no and that it would mean nothing more than saying no. It really was that simple, it was just that Oprah was complicating things. After agonising for days over what to do, she finally called Stevie back, and with much trepidation said no to helping out on the project.
She shared how anxious she was waiting for his reply. She was holding her breath and expecting something terrible to eventuate – for Stevie to yell at her, hang up the phone, and blacklist her as a friend forever. She was also faced with the dread of imploding right there on the phone to him!
But, nothing happened. Stevie said “Sure, no problem. So – will I be seeing you at the Met event next week?”. And their conversation just slid into the next topic with no awkwardness or drama whatsoever.
A pivotal moment in Oprah’s life.
Why is it that people – some more than others – find it so challenging to say no?
They end up doing things they don’t want to, with people they don’t want to be doing it with, and then they feel annoyed/frustrated/upset when they have got themselves into such a position.
On top of that: why is it that when they say no they feel the need to justify and explain why they are unable to do what’s being asked of them?
Learning to say no is one of the key tenets to having a well-developed sense of self-love. When we feel confident enough to say no (especially in the face of a potentially negative response) it is clear that our self-worth is coming from within. By this, I mean that our worth is not hinged upon being liked by another, being seen to be a certain way, or buoyed by people-pleasing.
The other thing to remember is that many of us were conditioned as children to be compliant and to say “yes”. I know that when I was a child and was asked by an adult to do something, there simply was no option of saying no – that would have been disrespectful! I also know that many of my peers had a similar upbringing, and that this is a legacy we all need to work against.
Like any behaviour that is new and particularly uncomfortable, the only way we get better at it is by practise. The more we are willing to experience the uncomfortableness of saying no, the more we are willing to expand and grow ourselves as congruent individuals.
Saying no means nothing more than the meaning we give it – just like in Oprah’s case.
Change the meaning and NO now becomes our friend.