miniseries: taking care of yourself and others

It’s okay to say “no.”

Once a month, during my senior year of high school, I’d drive to my Rabbi’s house for a two-hour discussion on a given topic. As everyone filed in we’d eat a snack and talk about college essays and eventually college acceptances. After 15 minutes of schmoozing, we dove into our topic for the month. We talked about finding a college that would meet our needs as Jews, intermarriage, and even cults. The most memorable session was the one my Rabbi led about saying “no.”

People are always going to want a piece of your time. It’s up to you to balance your time. It’s okay to say “no.”

It’s been almost 20 years since my Rabbi taught us when, why, and how to say “no.” He was preparing us for the temptations that might lead us astray when we didn’t have our parents looking over our shoulder in college. For example, he wanted us to know it would be okay to say “no” to people who’d try to lure us to a party, away from our studying, on a weeknight. He told us if our gut told us something wasn’t right about a situation, then we should turn down the offer.

No is just one syllable. It easy to utter; just listen to a toddler since many of them perfect the word early on. However, it takes coaching to have enough respect for yourself, as a teenager, to say “no” without coming off as standoffish. Thankfully, my Rabbi gave me (and the other kids in the senior class) the tools we needed to turn down overtures that weren’t a good fit for us.

College presented many challenges. Thankfully, I was able to navigate the peer pressure that popped up because I had the strength I needed to know it was okay to say “no” when situations put my health, safety, or beliefs in jeopardy.

  • No, I won’t get a fake ID even if everyone else has one.
  • No, I won’t walk across campus by myself at 1:00 a.m. I’ll call the Escort Van (thank you very much).
  • No, I won’t look at the old exams you found.
  • No, I won’t haze the pledges.

Think I didn’t have fun in college? Think again. I had a blast! I spent four and a half years living in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC. I became active in Hillel where I met some of my dearest friends, one of whom co-officiated my wedding. I volunteered at the White House. I joined a sorority where I met my best friend. I studied at museums. I explored the monuments and various neighborhoods of the city with friends. I participated in the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Occasionally, I splurged and took in a show at the Kennedy Center. I taught religious school, which helped me realize I wanted to become a classroom teacher. I interned at a Washingtonian Magazine. I graduated, albeit a semester late due to my car accident, feeling confident in most of the decisions I made along the way. I did all of these things while making fantastic friends who accepted me for me.

I took my ability to say “no” to the working world. I quickly realized it was easier to say “no” when your paycheck wasn’t on the line. Instead of saying “no,” I learned how to advocate for myself in advance. For instance, when I worked in the cosmetics industry, I negotiated an earlier start time in the mornings so I could leave work by 4:30 p.m. in order to go to physical therapy for my neck. I negotiated extra personal time off in order to observe Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur with my family. (As a result, I didn’t take vacation days before and after Christmas and Easter when most of my colleagues were away.) I came to realize I had to give a little if I wanted to take a little.

Teaching has a way of making people wear many hats. I’m not just talking about the roles educators play for students (e.g., instructor, disciplinarian, mentor, therapist, evaluator), but the extra things teachers inevitably take on: the clubs we sponsor, the committees we sit on, the field trips we organize, the professional development we lead. It’s easy to have all of your “free” time sucked away by non-classroom commitments. Therefore, I encourage you to think about the gist of the advice my Rabbi gave. I think it’s as good now as it was in 1994:

People are always going to want a piece of your time. It’s up to you to balance your time. It’s okay to say “no.”

It’s important to give of our time, our expertise, and our friendship to others. However, it’s also important to advocate for yourself. I’ve been sitting on the board of directors for a local school since 2010. Last year I was invited to sit on the board of trustees for my synagogue. I wanted to sit on both boards because of my passion about both organizations. However, I knew I didn’t want to spend more nights away from my family each month to sit on the additional board (which, like any board, also comes along with committee membership). Therefore, I thanked the person who contacted me from my synagogue for the board’s confidence in me and then politely declined since I didn’t want to spread myself too thin. I did, however, leave the door open and told him I would be interested in serving in the future (so to please ask again). At the time, I felt badly about turning down my synagogue, but months later I look back on my decision and know I made the right one since I get to be here to put my daughter to bed nearly every night of the month.

Have you taken on too much? Do you need to step-down from a committee or refrain from accepting new responsibilities? Share your thoughts about the idea of saying “no” by leaving a comment.

This is the final post in a series of six posts about taking care of yourself and others. Here are the links to the previous posts:

Post 1: Be more than busy. Be productive. Be happy.

Post 2: Schedule some time for yourself in 2013.

Post 3: Be Present

Post 4: Hitting the Reset Button

Post 5: Friendship Recharges Our Spirit

Thanks for reading!

12 thoughts on “It’s okay to say “no.”

  1. Your post couldn’t have come at a better time! And, for me, it’s not only about saying no but it’s also about taking the time to see everything around me, to be surprised and delighted by life. Instead of looking for abnormalities, I need to see what’s right in front of my eyes. Saying no is hard but so essential to a life worth living.


  2. Finally read the whole article this morning. I need to practice saying no. A great reminder to take care of myself. I want to read the rest of your series. But first to eat my breakfast, and finish my slice for today.
    xo Pamela


  3. I very much so needed to read this today. Last year, I made my self a priority, and started saying NO to a lot of the extra committees and activities I had always been sucked into, in order to make more time for exercise and healthy food preparations. This year, I’m hitting a point where more and more is being heaped on again. I need to re-learn how to say no. I think what’s harder about it this time around is this: More and more things are being asked of us as teachers. It gets to the point where the things I have to say NO to are things I really feel I should be doing as a good teacher. I have to remind myself that a tired, overweight, unhealthy teacher is not a good teacher, no matter how much extra “stuff” she tries to do.


  4. lol. I think it’s funny that you posted this on the day before the SOL challenge starts! (Are you trying to discourage people? jk) Very important reminder. I find it’s easiest to say no when my priorities are absolutely clear and explicitly articulated…


  5. Sometimes I think learning to say ‘no’ is for women especially, Stacey. It is challenging not to be all things to all people! Thank you for this, & for all the previous posts. They’ve been supportive of important things in our lives.


  6. This post reminds me of a commitment I made to participate in an online class. As the time neared, all I could feel was dread (not my usual response to an opportunity to learn). Thanks to reading these posts and listening (my OLW for this year), I found the courage to say, “No thank you, not now.” Another phrase I find helpful is, “Let me think about this and get back to you.”


  7. Hi Stacey,
    I was thinking about this on my way home from school today. It’s something I really struggle with a lot because so many times I think I can do it all or as the over achiever, I want to do it all. I have to always remind myself that it’s ok to say NO and that I need balance in my life. Thank you for your post! I really enjoyed your series on taking care of yourself.
    Jee Young


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