Q: People ask me for help a lot. I say “yes,” even when I feel like I’m overextended. How to I say “no” without sounding like a jerk?
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A: First, you have to abandon the idea that saying “no” to a request is rude. It can be, certainly, if it’s accompanied by a crude gesture or a punch in the face or something. But simply declining to do something is not an impolite action.
The need to help anyone who asks, even if it leaves no time or energy left to the person helping, can be tied to enforced gender roles. Women learn early on that they should be easygoing and giving and that asserting their own boundaries doesn’t align with those qualities. It’s up to all of us to dismantle that idea. I hope that you’ll continue to be as generous as possible. We all should be. But if helping a friend rearrange her bedroom furniture (not an emergency) prevents you from studying for a test (that one is a little more timely), then you can and should decline. If you’re harboring guilt for it, talk it through with someone and let it go.
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It’s credited to so many people that it’s impossible to know who coined it first, but one of my favorite sayings is, “‘No’ is a complete sentence.” There are cases, of course, where “no” has to be accompanied by a reason. But I try to apply that saying internally. If I can’t do something, I won’t make excuses for myself in my own head. I trust my own judgment and hope to be in a better position to help the next time.
If you need advice, ask your question in the comments, and it may be featured in an upcoming column.
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