Learning to Say No


By Sabrina Barwick, Staff Writer

A few weekends ago, I spent my Sunday morning embroidering with a group of women I’ve never met in a hipster bookstore in central Phoenix. The event was inspired by the ‘Tiny Pricks Project’ and piqued my interest. I attempted to look composed and confident holding the needle and hoop while sewing an “inspirational” quote (Todo puede tener belleza, aun lo más horrible — Frida Kahlo). However, I hadn’t taken on a task like this since my mother attempted to introduce me to something similar when I was a small child and I was feeling heinously out of place.

Courtesy of Sabrina Barwick.

Nonetheless, I used my extroverted demeanor (a trait I did embrace from my mother) and sat next to a stranger sitting alone and began a conversation. As we spoke, and I struggled to spell “Todo” with thread, two other women joined us at the table. Eventually, we took turns sharing the projects we were working on. One woman was embroidering a large piece of cloth to become part of a Baile Folklórico costume. The other had a large, square frame made of reclaimed wood with fabric stretched over it, and was free handing a picture with individual people on it. Finally, the woman next to me pulled out a handful of tiny patches with the word “No” embroidered on them.

“I make these to remind myself to say no more often, that it’s okay. Or, to give to my friends to help remind them,” she explained. All of us at the table agreed that it is far too easy to agree to any and all requests, favors, invitations, and events. It’s the “curse of the capable” according to a respected colleague in my workplace.

Why can it be so difficult to say no?

It partially arises from the human desire to be liked and to be compassionate. Few people want to be a jerk in the office who never offers to reciprocate a favor or assist a colleague with a task. According to research from Emory University, simply being given the opportunity to help someone else sparks the part of the brain that registers rewards and experiences pleasure. Apparently, we’re wired to be altruistic on some level. Perhaps the handful of us who load on as many tasks as possible in pursuit of being “helpful” are just addicted to the pleasure the reward centers in our brains feel. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Courtesy of Rubyetc.

It’s also rooted in our mindset and culture. Americans have done an excellently horrifying job of convincing themselves that their worth as a human being is tied to their productivity. To break it down a bit, people often feel worthless or poor about themselves if they aren’t doing something “active.” In this context, “active” could mean completing work, cleaning your apartment, calling your grandparents—really whatever responsibility you know you should complete in the spare moments of time you have during the day, but don’t. This, I believe, is partially why the self-care movement has received so much attention as of late: it gives everyone permission to take time for themselves and only themselves.

I’m telling you today that you matter, even if you binge an entire series on Netflix or stay out a bit too late on a weeknight instead of completing that task sitting in the back of your mind.

When we say yes to every request from our bosses, professors, colleagues, friends, and even family, we simultaneously and implicitly say no to ourselves. Time is a scarce resource. Time is valuable. Your time is valuable. Like Congresswoman Maxine Waters, reclaim your time.


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