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.