How to say “No” – that is, how ***I*** truly learned to say “No”

Too long, didn’t read:  When you learn to identify true friends in your life, then suddenly saying “No” to everyone else becomes the easiest thing.

This is my third attempt (at least) at writing this post. It feels like there is something hugely significant at the root of this which I myself cannot even truly understand.  What I do understand enough to say is this:  this might well be one of the most important posts I write on this blog.  It is not about marriage; ironically saying “No” to men romantically has always been one thing I’ve never struggled with never been a difficulty for me.  This is usually because it has tended to be a “black and white thing”*. If he’s not a Christian then I can’t go out with him. Simple. No matter how insistent he might try to be. The times when Christian guys have asked me out, still it has tended to be cut and dried, as it has tended to be the case that I had already formed my opinons about the men in question before they asked me out…

This post is not actually about marriage, or about saying no to men romantically.  Rather it is about saying no in social contexts.
I’ve elaborately made the point above that I’ve never struggled to say no to guys romantically (or sexually**), because to be candid I have struggled to say no in practically every other social context. Learning how to say no has been the single most transformative aspect of my life. However it is all tied in with everything else I write on this blog, like “2-yearing” potential husbands, which has happily segued into “2-yearing” close friends/anyone that I plan to have in close association with me. In short, I have learned that I have to be as fussy with friends and insist on such outstanding character from them as I insist on from my future husband, and even myself.  Perhaps it would make sense to explain this issue first before I then explain how that has informed my thinking about how to say no.

[How this post is organised: firstly I will explain how I have now learned to say no, and secondly I will (when I have time?) go into detail of all the different ways I experimented with this first.]

So it’s like this. I have spoken at incredible length on this blog about the importance of insisting on outstanding character from my husband. I have spoken also at considerable length both here and on my Bible blog about the fact that I strive after outstanding character myself. Well eventually I realised that I have to have exactly these same extremely high standards for my friends too. The fact is this:  if someone is close to you, whether they are your husband, or your boss, or your pastor, or your friends, then they have real potential to touch your life, positively or negatively.  I’ve also said on this blog that I don’t believe in “unconditional love”, as loudly trumpeted regarding marriage. I’ve recently thought of a better way to explain this:  I’ve sat down and worked out what I can afford to give to everyone without receiving anything back (more on this below).  This can be considered “unconditional love” because it does not matter whether someone reciprocates, or even acknowledges these things. I am happy to give them and to just keep giving them. However the fact is that with close friends, especially my husband, it is precisely because I need something from it that I enter into that relationship.  That means that failure to reciprocate adequately will disqualify my husband or my close friends from that position, even though I can keep showing them the “unconditional love” that I show to everybody.  I think that whether we admit it or not, this is quite clearly the way we all interact in our close relationships.  Newsflash – this is even the way God works!  The Bible states that God shows unconditional love to everyone, by giving both rain and sunshine to good people and bad people. And yet there are people that God calls His friends, whom He interacts with in a closer way. Long story short:  we all need things from our close friendships, and I think it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

This then is why I need to carefully evaluate people I let close to me: we all relate with one another out of the character that we have cultivated, or failed to cultivate.  If I let someone close to me who has poor character, then for instance they might be selfish or controlling, or they might deliberately ignore my own needs. Or possibly they do not have “poor character” as such, but rather they are just inexperienced, so they might simply not know how to consider my own needs. Either way they might fail to meet my needs, and I will be upset. This has happened sufficient times for me to understand just how much of a priority it is for me to cultivate the right people in close interaction with me.  Perhaps other people have other things that they consider priorities. However for me, this is a priority. Furthermore I believe that the reason I have failed to progress as far or as quickly as I might have done in certain areas is because I failed to understand this earlier. So I spent so much time investing into friendships with the wrong people only to be eventually let down, time and again. Here’s the thing: Finding people of truly excellent character is not actually impossible, merely next to impossible, even in the so called church, where we are all supposedly striving as hard as we can to be as much like Jesus as we possibly can. You honestly don’t need me to go into yet another rant just now, or rather, this is likely to be a long post, I sincerely don’t have time for that just now!  Long story short, practically everyone is the wrong person! However, there are some people who are truly gems whom I have been able to find. Let me assure everyone reading this that the sincere closer to Christ you become, then the better person you will be, the better and more reliable and truer friend or husband you will be.  Please take my word for this.  I’m not talking about those “Christians” who are constantly spouting Bible verses, or what is known as “Christianese”:  “Praise the Lord! God is so good! Have a blessed day!” Well-worn Christian phrases or Christian platitudes, jargon that you effortlessly pick up in Christian circles as taken together these phrases all but constitute their own language. Unfortunately there are many, many such Christians whose platitudes are not sincerely backed up by any true commitment to Christ.  If you grew up in an amazing Christian environment as I did, where everyone was sincere, or rather where there was so much sincerity that it outweighed all else, then it might come as a shock to you, as it has done to me, that these days, much of the so-called church is the opposite of sincerity. Since some cunning people in the African church thought of a way to make big money from church, sincerity has essentially flown out of the window, to be replaced by charlatan pastor after charlatan pastor in church building after church building seemingly dreaming up ways to extort as much money from their congregants as possible, which is not a conducive environment to finding love and kindness in the church.

That is not good news. However there is certainly still good news in the Christian faith, and it is the same Good News as there has always been:  yes God is real, the Bible is true, and having a relationship with the living God is what you and I and everyone who has ever lived has been designed for. However if you make the mistake of going into church and expecting to meet angels in the people around you, you are likely to be disappointed.  Please believe me that there are some real sharks out there in pastors’ clothing. However, sometimes, it is not even that people/pastors are actual charlatans/sharks, but rather that even in their sincerity they are markedly inadequate.  So anyway the point of all of this is that you can’t just go into a church and expect everyone around you to be an excellent exemplar of Christian character. You truly have to learn to measure and evaluate people.  Even excellent people are not perfect, of course, so excellent people will let you down now and then, of course. However I believe that over time you will come to see the difference between people who are truly excellent, albeit not perfect, and people who are simply let-downs.

So for me, this has been a lesson decades in the learning.  However, now that I believe that I have learned it, and grasped it, it has made it a lot, lot easier for me to be able to say no.

If you have learned to follow the way I think, perhaps what I am about to say next might flow logically, but here it is: for me this has been absolutely groundbreaking.
Basically, I have “No” people, and I have “Yes” people (to talk about later: that thing when people realise they have moved from being a Yes person to a No person…)
So basically “Yes” people are the people with whom I am actively trying to cultivate friendships, because I have already tried out their character, and found them to be excellent people. So because of this, I feel happy to invest my time and money into them, their projects etc.  On the whole, I know that:
– they will reciprocate where appropriate, because they sincerely try to live their lives with justice and kindness.  Reciprocity is deeply important for me in friendships, that is, you help me out when I need, and I help you out when you need – as this is the essence of community, which is living and working together with others to benefit all of us.  I honestly don’t understand people who fail to understand this.
– they try their hardest to tell themselves the truth, so they will not try to undermine me because of their ego or insecurities, then find a way of pinning the blame on me (because this happens All. The. Time.  I have so many stories, and after so much experience, I flatter myself that I can usually see right through people even to the point of identifying exactly which insecurity is at work)
– they try their hardest to tell me the truth, so when they offer constructive criticism it is truly coming from a sincere place, they won’t be trying to pull me down once again because of ego or insecurity
– If I have a reason to complain about them, they will take it in good faith, go away, listen to what I’ve said, where necessary make corrections, or politely tell me why they disagree, or show me how I might be wrong
– They are not afraid to tell me where I might be wrong, because they sincerely want to help me be the best that I can be, and they know that I would eagerly listen to what they have to say, even if it is difficult.

These people are good investments. This means that when they make a request, I’ll consider it, and where possible I will say yes. Wow. There is one particular “Yes” person in my life. She is so good, and has such convincing Christlike character. I will unthinkingly clear my diary for her every single time unless I physically can’t do it.

Here is the big, perhaps brutal thing.  Other than explicit “Yes” people, of which there are fewer than 5 people in my life, and other than immediate and close-ish family, who are “Yes” people by default, everyone else is a “No” person. Every last person. (Except for people in whichever church I might currently be attending. For this I am still trying to formulate consistent guidelines for myself.)
So for no people I will automatically say “No” to every single request that they make. Even if I can do it. OK, that’s not actually true. I’ve sat down and worked out what I can freely give to everyone for free, without needing recognition or reciprocation.  These are a couple of the things:
This first thing might sound small:  I am happy to spend time sending birthday greetings to everyone on my Facebook friend list, regardless of whether they ever send me happy birthday greetings in return. Please believe me that this seemingly small act required some consideration on my part. This even extends to people who are completely inactive on Facebook.  Sometimes I’ll even post “remembering you on your birthday” messages to people whom I know to have passed away – if Facebook still notifies me of their birthday.
Something else I am now generally happy to give to people for free: liking someone’s page on Facebook. You know what? It takes milliseconds. It costs me practically nothing.  It is essentially free. Once again this has required some consideration so as recently as maybe 6 months ago I would evaluate people to see whether they had liked or interacted with my own pages.  But now I’ve realised that I can “like” the pages, then if the notifications get too many, I can simply unfollow the page. So where people either have not liked my own page or never interact with it, I now go ahead and like their page, so at least that bolsters the number of their page likers – and then I straight away unfollow the page. If you use Facebook a lot as I do, then you might understand the bitterness that this page-liking business can involve!

So then, long story short, for “No” people, I am happy to give things that are generally free, that do not cost me much time, effort or money.  However, when people start asking for these costly things (time, money or effort), as long as they are “No” people then the answer is automatically “No”, always – unless I am deliberately engaging in an act of charity – and sometimes even then!

This idea of having “Yes” people and “No” people has been revolutionary in my own life.  And yet I kinda now realise that many people had been essentially treating me as a “No” person in that they would automaticallly say “No” to all my requests, while boldly asking me for all my time and effort – which I used to give so freely!  My point is that it might not be quite so revolutionary for other people because that is essentially the way they’d already been acting!

Before understanding all this about character, and from that deliberately cultivating certain people, and from that “Yes” people and “No” people, I tried to build friendships with as many people as possible. Now I can see that many of those people (including Christians) were simply using me, because I always said “Yes” so freely, as I was naively expecting reciprocity in turn. I have an extremely strong sense of loyalty and community spirit, so to anyone I consider a “Yes” person I will tend to say “yes” very easily. (Some people have actually treated me with such undisguised glee at my “Yessiness” as if they could not believe their luck!) So I have spent so much (unpaid) time investing into other people’s endeavours at the detriment of my own goals. Only for these same people whom I’ve helped so painstakingly to then fail to help me out with my own goals. (And yet by God’s grace, somehow God has still blessed me with so much in my own name!)  I have not spent so much money, possibly because I simply did not spend enough time working on my own goals to actually make any money!

On finally identifying some of these people as sheer users, I simply, unceremoniously unfriended them or even blocked them on Facebook. Boom. And that has been how many previously “Yes” people unceremoniously and permanently found themselves turned into “No” people in my life. In more recent times, I have shied away from unfriending people altogether, and now just say “No” or ignore the request. I believe (hope!) that this has come as a shock to the system to some people.  Some people have learned to take my “yes” for granted so much that when they make requests, waiting for me to say yes is almost just a mere formality, as it is such a given that I will say yes. So they have already factored in my “Yes” as a given into their plans – even before they ask me. Yes, it has been beyond gratifying to learn to say an insistent “No” to these requests and watch the shock, horror and/or disbelief as it plays across their faces/voices. Some people have laughably tried to impugn my integrity for the fact that I would actually enforce my boundaries, as if they have some moral, inalienable right to my time.
Guess what – after you have said a firm emphatic no about three times in a row people will get the message and they will stop asking you – whether they ever recover from the shock is a different matter.

The truth is that I am sure that I could learn to be selfish like everyone else – but I have a heart that is too unselfish and it would physically hurt me to become like this.  I hope it is fair to say that I would never be the kind of person to wilfully use someone else.  I believe that I will always be the kind of person to say a quick and easy “Yes” to my friends.  What a lesson it has been to learn which people I can truly consider close friends – and the far larger number of people that I cannot truly consider close friends, but with whom I still try to be friendly all the same.

*I can’t pretend, of course, to be unaware of the racial connotations of this phrase, and yet I am stubbornly going to leave the phrase as is, because to be honest these racial issues have subtly often been at play…  Just a gentle reminder that if anyone is going to refer to my skin colour, then I ask them to be accurate about it, as my skin colour is very definitely brown and has never been anything other than brown, at least in my memory…and these days I also tend to be accurate when describing other people’s skin colours…Admittedly my skin colour does get significantly darker when I go to Africa!

** I avoid being alone with guys, which has happily meant that I have also avoided guys trying to pressurise me sexually. However some guys are so… [what might be the correct word here – blatant? Unsubtle?] – that when they are supposedly “asking you out” even in public, in broad daylight, what they are obviously, “nakedly” asking is actually to sleep with you. I am a born-again Christian, I don’t believe in pre-marital sex, and to be candid if this is your approach then you would not be the kind of man I’d be looking to marry anyway!  To be blunt!

[NEXT POST: When I have time:  talking about all the far less effectual ways I previously tried to say no:  I’ll give you a quick taste:  when I first started realising that I needed to learn how to say no – about a decade ago?! – this is really funny – unbelievably, before then, I had just said an automatic “yes” to everything, as long as I could do it – except romantic requests. Then I had this brainwave of having “no” months where I would literally say “no” to every request that people made of me during that month, whether or not I could do each individual request, as a way of practising saying no. This was awkward at first, but it could work if you are a people pleaser and you are in a generally positive environment surrounded by people of great character but you still struggle to say no. On balance though, having “Yes” or “No” people, and recognising that most people are emphatically “No” people, has been what has worked for me because of my own deeply community-oriented personality.  Also, this is a good one – don’t give reasons.  As I’ve become more confident in saying no, I have been able to learn how to graciously give reasons as to why I can’t do it – where necessary.  But if you are a true people-pleaser as I used to be, I encourage you to teach people to respect your “No” by not giving any reason or explanation at all. Literally just say “No” and leave it at that. Because guess what?!  I can do it, I just don’t want to!  And not wanting to do it is a perfectly valid reason for me to say “No”!  Oh very well, I can’t resist adding this very last one (for now?!) – if people start to try to argue with you, you can look at them and say in the sternest voice you can muster “I’ve said No!”  Boom! Yeah baby, I’ve got to admit I quite like releasing that one, I cannot lie!!!]

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