The Gift of No

Several years ago, I made a request of a man I dearly love, a man who has probably had as much influence on me as any person outside my family. My request was personal and relationally risky. I felt the queasy stomach that comes whenever you put yourself on a limb, exposing your desires and wondering if you’re going to look foolish or needy or prove to be a bother.

Still, I made the ask. And the answer was no. While the kind response provided a straightforward reason, he did not strain to soften my inevitable disappointment. He did not work hard to offer alternative possibilities, the way one motivated by guilt frantically searches for anything to relieve the tension. He did not pile on the many reasons why this situation was out of his control. The truth is that his answer was in his control. He simply concluded that he would not be able to meet my desire, and that was the end of the matter.

The finality landed a punch in the gut. I was not angry, but I was genuinely sad. I’m still sad some days when I reflect on the episode. However, I believe this dear man offered, through his refusal, a gift more precious to me than if he had granted what I wanted. He modeled for me the necessity and the power of a straight, unequivocal no.

It’s rare these days to find a woman or man who knows themselves so well that they are clear on where they must say yes and clear on where they must say no. Even rarer is the person so comfortable in their own skin that they know they do not bear the responsibility for how another handles the fact that they can not deliver. Those of us who live our lives under the weight of another’s expectations become a frail or embittered shell of our true selves. Do not walk this road. We need the true you, the strong you. To stay true, we must learn to say no with increasing frequency. We need to learn the courage of our no and trust that others will need to learn this same courage as well.

13 Replies to “The Gift of No”

  1. How did you know I needed this today? Wrestling with what I know is my real answer to a question and what others want that answer to be. Learning through much difficulty that the cost of giving a “yes” you cannot afford is not with the sacrifice – and, it is a false sacrifice at that, that promotes the lie that I have more to give than I actually do. Thanks, Winn.

  2. You will tell me again that I am just too focused on myself. Nevertheless, I will say that I see this kind of thing everywhere — be authentic, be whole, be open-hearted, be straightforward, be vulnerable, etc, not to mention be willing to engage in real community — and yet it is simply not true for me. Over and over and over and over again I keep learning the lesson that in my case, to love my neighbor is to protect them from myself, because I am too intense. So I am trying to figure out how to do that in a way that doesn’t mean trying to isolate myself or build walls or otherwise absent myself from my relationships — or absent my dangerous self while investing the self that is okay for others.

    1. Hi, Marcy. I’m not sure exactly what you heard in my words (such things are tricky), but I would hope that the call to say ‘no’ would be freeing for you, that it is good and right to be (in certain ways) selective. There are places where you need not venture, where you need not extend yourself in ways that wound your soul. To live wholehearted does not mean that we must spill our whole self in every occasion or within every relationship. It simply means that we must not hide and we must not lie. Loving, courageous discernment about when/where/to whom (i.e. when yes and when no) is an essential part of this picture. Be well.

      1. I’m not sure how I got here either. I think it’s just that I am not usually the one with the opportunity to say no — I am instead the one who wants too much and who offers too much, and who needs to stop both things so that people don’t have to say so much no to me. And I don’t know how to do it; feels like death, and not the good kind that saves the soul.

        1. These disappointments are a real place of pain. I pray that in time the way will become clearer to you, and I pray that there will be people in your life (often it’s only a very few) who truly see you.

    2. Marcy, your words sound like something I’d say. There’s a lot of wisdom and pain in your comment. Thank you for sharing. I hope you find people who bless you just the way you are.

      1. Thank you, Katie. Some do, sometimes. But my vision of community and companionship seems way over the top compared to what most folks think. Maybe they’re right, or maybe it doesn’t matter what the vision is if no one around me is ready for that kind of thing. I’m probably not ready either — desiring and being ready are not the same thing.

        And, it’s funny — looking at this conversation again, I wonder (as I often have) about the difference between not hiding and spilling the whole self — I’m sure there is a difference, but so often boundary maintenance feels like hiding, hypocrisy, or deceit. That, and in some ways I want to open my whole self — and be received with gentle seriousness and welcome.

  3. It sounds so easy to do – just say no – but when it comes to the asking of a dear loved one (my brother) for a physical need (money) to help him out of a bind (credit card over-spending) – and to make it harder (I have the funds readily available to help him) – saying no is like stabbing me in the chest – so hard to do the “tough love” thing. Thankfully, God assisted me a few months ago to set some boundaries – and when the “ask” came, someone near and dear was able to remind me of those God-given boundaries – so I was able to implement them just in time. Rejoicing – in obedience – but certainly not my brother’s situation. Praying for Him – that He cry out to God – and not so much me – for assistance. Thanks so much for writing the “gift of no” and for my dear friend, Linda, for sharing it with me this morning.

    1. I often face similar situations in parenting my elementary kid — how to demonstrate love and support with the no, how to help her understand that the help I can offer is not to do something (that she needs to do herself) for her, but to love and support her through her own doing. This blog is intended for parenting, but I think the content can be adapted to other situations as well:

  4. I have found saying no as hard or harder than hearing it when I’ve asked for something. But you’re right, it is a gift. To see it that way can be a growth step for both people involved.

  5. OH, YEAH. This is hard, isn’t it? When someone we love says ‘no,’ it hurts. But it’s honest, it’s real and ultimately, it’s right, too. Thanks for this good reminder, Winn. A man who mentored me early in my pastoring life said to me, “Learn now what your ‘yeses’ are because you’ve to know them well to be able to say ‘no’ when you need to. And you’re going to need to, count on it.” Tried to live by those words ever since, but it ain’t easy!

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