Learning It's Okay to Say No - Christine Kane

After reading my last post – The 7 Biggest Mistakes People Make When They Say No – my dear friend Kathy LaMotte wrote me this note. I’ve posted it here with her permission.

When I was in high school, my friend Robert killed himself because I wouldn’t go out with him.

I “learned” that saying no could kill people, at least when I did it.  You can imagine that I had a wee tiny problem saying no after that.

Years later, I volunteered at an emergency shelter.  We took in people in all sorts of emergencies — abused women with kids, runaways, etc. — so everyone needed it to be a safe place.  For this reason, we did not take people who were intoxicated.

Night after night, homeless guys would come to the door drunk, wanting to stay.  We had to say no. It was such an important part of the job that, in our training, we each practiced Saying No at the door.

It was this experience that finally taught me an important thing about Saying No.

We all had this need to convince the drunk guy that our decision was right. We wanted him to agree with us.  We explained. We blamed rules. We blamed the “higher-ups.” All to no avail, of course — until we finally got angry enough and slammed the door.

The drunk person would manipulate, accuse us of being uncaring, threaten the shelter with bad publicity.  This triggered our deepest fears:  I’m not nice and other people will think I’m not nice.

(The funny part was realizing that the drunk guy was *never* going to agree — he had a big interest in seeing it the other way.  Here we were at the door, trying to convince a drunk guy that it really was better for all concerned that he not get a nice clean bed tonight.)

What I learned was this:

The advance work was important. I had to convince myself that I had a right to say no. I had to BELIEVE that it was rightfully my/our decision, and that it was possible to say no firmly but without anger.

I could choose to explain if I thought it might be helpful, but I had no obligation to explain, and sometimes explaining wasn’t helpful. (After all, “You’re drunk” does not elicit a “You’re right, I’m drunk, I’ll go now” response.)

I could just say, kindly, “No, sorry, you can’t stay here tonight” and close the door.

And that, by the way, was much more respectful to the other person than getting defensive and resentful.

  • kathyla

    i love this thread! thanks to all who are participating.

    in another twist on this, i used to always feel manipulated by charities that ask for donations. i decided the answer was to choose the ones i really want to support (and really support them, or this is dishonest) and say to any others, “thanks for the work you do, but i select the organizations i want to support pretty carefully and give only to them.” of course, i make exceptions for the neighbors’ kid selling wrapping paper, or anything else i want to do for some reason, but i don’t make donations out of guilt now. (wait! i’d like to donate my guilt!)

    same goes for volunteer work — i just say, “no, i’m putting my energy into ___ which feels really right for me right now.” and i do the volunteer work i love.

    this approach changes the basic framing from:

    “is this a good organization/ important work/ a huge problem that needs to be solved? if so, give them money or time or live with the guilt”


    “of all the needs in the world, is this the best place for me to put my time/ money?”

    here too, the advance work (deciding which to support) makes the no-saying easier, but more important, it gives me focus and a sense of making my own life choices.

    and it does work in reverse order — it’s possible to do the no-saying first and clear everything out, and then work on what is right to put back in.

  • Marie

    I hear you – I was raised by a family that felt that we should never say no, because someone else’s feelings could get hurt. Our feelings didn’t matter – the other person’s did. So I saw years and years of impositions on my relatives and their unhappiness because they didn’t believe that they had the power to say no, or that they would remain ‘good people’ after saying no.

    Then I met a weird guy in college, and didn’t want to go out with him. He called one day to see what I was doing, I told him what I was studying, he said the subject was “crap” and I told him that I still didn’t want to go out with him. He sent me a carnation on Sweetest Day, I immediately threw it in the trash, and when he called thanked him for the gesture and repeated that I still didn’t want to go out with him. That was the entirety of our relationship.

    Months later I ran into an acquaintance who told me that the guy was deeply depressed and had withdrawn from school. I didn’t feel bad then and I still do not – some people know how to prey on those who feel like they ‘have to’ say yes, and I refuse to be one of those people, and I saw enough manipulation before I was 16 (and don’t want to see any more). I’m sorry his life took the turn that it did, but not sorry about any role I played in it – we must not allow ourselves to be manipulated by creeps.

  • kathyla

    elizabeth, i hear you! and i was right there with you on the inability to say no to men, which had pretty major (but could have been worse!) consequences.

    the scary part is that the issue has never really gone away, but the good news is that it recurs in more subtle ways, and i can say, “ah… robert again” and find my way through faster.

    the thing is that there are situations and outcomes that we *feel* responsible for, but we are not. for all my guilt, i didn’t cause robert to die, and i’m not sure it would have helped if i’d made a different choice — but i didn’t see that for about a decade.

    and you didn’t cause the death in your story either, of course, though it doesn’t feel that way from inside our skin.

    for me it’s been a huge amount of work and time to get to some peace with this. it happened more than 30 years ago, but is one of the things that define me still, though in a different way now, as something i’ve come through.

    and a huge part of the story is this knowing that i have a right to say no about things that are mine. still not easy, but i see the importance. and i know the consequences of saying yes when the right answer is no can be just as bad as — or worse than — the guilt, because i’ve had way too many years of that, too.

    and that it’s really, really unfair to blame ourselves from this perspective when we know the outcome. it’s as if we equate our decisions (which i think were right in both your case and mine) with the outcome, so that to say “my saying no was th right thing to do then” is the same as “it’s ok that he died.” and they’re two different questions.

    and you have no responsibility to deal with drunk people. =)

  • Elizabeth

    This blog entry took me back almost 30 years, to when I was at university and seeing a fellow from South Africa with a drinking problem. I could tell from his voice on the intercom one night that he was roaring drunk and I refused to buzz him in to my apartment.

    We had been seeing each other, fairly casually I thought, for 2 or 3 months at that time. After that evening he refused to answer my calls, or to speak to me in person. Mutual friends told me he was devastated by our “break up.”

    Within a couple of weeks he had given up his position at the University and returned to South Africa. I found out later that he had difficult finding work, as many many educated whites were streaming into SA from a dangerous revolution in what was then Rhodesia.

    He finally found occupation on a forestry station on the border between Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Mozambique. One day a group of Mugabe’s guerilla fighters came out of the jungle and took him, as the only white on the station, away with them.

    It was almost a year before his body was found. Well, his head. I had been corresponding with his mother in Durban, and she sent me the newspaper clipping.

    It may seem absurd, but to some extent I still feel responsible for his death. The way it has manifested with me is in my inability to deal with anyone who is drunk, or whom I suspect might be an alcoholic. I imagine they think I consider myself “above” them, but actually I’m just terrified.

    I commend you, Kathy, on your ability to conquer the aftermath of your friend’s suicide. My ability to say “no” to men, for any reason, was severely compromised for years after this. I’m fortunate to have met my current, long-term partner before the AIDS epidemic erupted.

  • Sue

    Kathy, thanks for sharing this with us. Wow. Sharing your journey about it really helps. And i love what you said at the end about how much more respectful it is of the other person when we can say no without anger or resentment.
    Thanks, thanks.

  • pati

    Thank you, Kathy and Christine. It’s interesting that you placed *s around *never* — because as I read the sentence, I focused on the words, the “drunk guy.” I thought, you could have come up with the most fantastic reason, excuse, explanation, or whatever . . . but, in talking to someone who’s drunk, you would never get the person to understand or agree with you.

    Reading your words hit home to something I experienced. The person wasn’t drunk, but he did have an agenda. And, he knew my nature: nurturing, helpful. Our relationship had ended a while back and he called, asking for a favor. Immediately I said yes — before hearing what the favor was. The conversation went round and round — and ended on a sad (and loud) note. I felt awful — because I, too, ended up saying no.

    I really appreciate your bravery in telling us about your experience with Robert, and later with the shelter. Coming full circle, although the person that called wasn’t drunk, for some reason, reading your words helped me realize that there wasn’t anything I could have said that would have helped him realize I couldn’t give him what he wanted. It still saddens me to think I couldn’t have helped him. However, I think my idea of “help” and his idea of “help” are two different things.

    I really like your thought about doing the advance work. That’s something I need to work on because I’ve been sensing “I feel trapped” a lot lately.

    Thanks, again.