Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Joy of No

Editor's note: By the age of 2, most of us are quite good at saying no. But as we grow up something changes. Pamela Beth Grossman writes about how having breast cancer brought the word back into her life.  

The other day, I was asked if I would do something I did not want to do, have good reasons not to do, and in fact should not be requested to do (nothing illegal; this was more of an emotional trespass).

I felt the request coming and tried to head it off politely at the pass. No luck. There it was; and my gut response came immediately out of my mouth in one syllable: "No!"

I immediately backtracked and gave a more nuanced, less blunt answer. However, the bottom line of "No" remained. And I was deeply struck by how good it felt—and how new an experience this whole "No" thing is to me.

I swear that until my breast cancer diagnosis, it was barely in my vocabulary. I constantly felt obligated to do things I was in fact not obligated to do and did not have time for or inclination toward. You wanted me to go to your band gig at 11 PM, three long subway rides from where I live, on a weeknight, in the dead of winter? Why, sure, I'd be there; even if you'd blown off my birthday party with no explanation. What I actually needed to do, could reasonably do, or, for that matter, wanted to do were not always clear in my mind; but what others wanted me to do was easy to see.

I have often said that sitting down in the chemo chair for the first time slapped "emotional glasses" on my face. Finally, finally, things I should always have known began to dawn on me. Like: My time is precious. My energy is finite. My life is my own. And no, I do *not* have to go to an acquaintance's second cousin's gallery opening (though I will if I actually want to).

It's amazing how life continues in the face of my saying "No." The band gig and the gallery opening will happen without me. The editing project you've asked me to do overnight, when I'm up against an article deadline and a head cold: Someone else will take it. Or they won't, and you won't get the work done overnight, but you know—it'll be OK. Generally speaking, these things are not all up to me. They're not all resting on my shoulders. Why did I used to think they were?

Note to my posse of requesters: Perhaps you've noticed I've been less inclined to race around like a crazy woman since I had cancer. Sorry I missed your experimental-string-quartet performance, happening in the middle of a work day, with tickets starting at $50, that you sent me 42 emails about when I've met you twice. OK, I'm not totally sorry I missed it, but I hope it went great and that it was well attended by people who had genuine good reason to be there. Co-worker, you say your niece's Brownie troop needs a check from me? Money's tight (as you know, since we work together!), but I'll be happy to donate some clothes to the Brownie Charity Flea Market instead. Hell, I'll happily attend the Brownie Charity Flea Market; I love that kind of thing.

And that's really the point. There's one huge, positive reason why "the joy of No" is so important: It frees up so much time, money, and energy to identify and pursue all the things, big and small, to which we dearly want to say "Yes."

Pamela Grossman is a journalist,
("The Village Voice," Salon.com, "Ms., etc.) creative writer, 2-year breast cancer survivor, and recovering overcommitter living in Brooklyn.


  1. Pamela, No is a powerful word that can help us have control over our own lives. I didn't have a problem saying no to doing things for others but I had problem to saying no to the emotional guilt my mother unintenionally put on me. After my cancer (18 months) and some professional help I have learned to say "no" to the guilt feelings of responsiblity for being her only daughter in town. I don't let her little "digs" get to me anymore and that is so emotionally freeing. Thanks for a great post.

  2. Pamela,

    This is a terrific posting!! I know exactly how you feel. Before my breast cancer diagnosis, I was a wimp, always agreeing to do whatever writing projects that my bosses wanted me to do. I let my sleep go, and I let my health go. Never mind that my co-workers always had permission to be lazy. I was the go-to schlep.

    Since diagnosis, I have learned to say No -- politely, not so politely, etc. but I realized that I got a second chance at life and if "Yes" would interfere with the quality of my life, than "No" would be the answer.

    Thanks again for an insightful posting.

  3. I couldn't agree more. BC has been such a motivator for me to edit my life. I preserve my time, energy, and emotions so much more now. Thanks for the wonderful read... Kathryn

  4. Excellent advice. One common piece of behavior change that I try to teach my patients is: "Start from 'no'." That is exactly what you are advocating: when you want to do something, it is easy to move to "yes", but our knee jerk reaction should be the opposite.
    Thank you for this posting.

    Hester Hill Schnipper

  5. Pam - Absolutely agree. I feel I have more time to enjoy the simple things, especially spending quality time with my family.

    Look forward to reading more of your posts.


  6. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments!

  7. I love this post and also the comments - "start from no" is a great idea! For me, it is the guilt that stays with you after saying no that I have a hard time with and have learned to shed since diagnosis. Let it go, let it go, let it go. That is my mantra these days.

  8. I would rather someone says no to me, than yes and resents me.

  9. I was thinking of this post over the weekend. I have discovered that this issue is hard for me and will probably be something I contend with all my life. That's OK! I just have to remember that it is hard for me and consider my decisions/"obligations" carefully as a result. Thanks for the insight! xo Pam