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Blog // Adaptability
October 7, 2009

What The Stoics Can Teach Us About Saying No

We could all do with a lesson in setting boundaries and learning to say no. Thankfull the Stoics had some good ideas on the subject.

There are some aspects of life where I find myself constantly lacking in confidence, grace, and poise.

Saying no is one of them.

I never seem to manage it in the cool and constructive way I’ve seen some friends and mentors do it. Usually I fumble about with lame excuses and often feel bad about it afterwards.

Of course, saying no is an uncomfortable experience for many of us. We’ve been conditioned to see our value as being dependent on making other people feel good, which can make it hard to set boundaries and say no.

Stoics And The Power Of Saying No

The Stoics gave great advice for living well. Philosophy, as a subject doesn’t always manage to that. One reason we still read the Stoics is because their approach feels grounded in reality rather than idealism. They began with the concession that there are some things in life you can control and many you can’t. So the best place to focus your attention and efforts is on the things you can control.

“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
– Marcus Aurelius

On the one hand, there’s value in being open to the new – experiences, places, and people. There’s a real danger in getting stuck if we shut ourselves off to opportunities to grow. It’s often the experience of the new that helps us overcome our limitations and grow as people.

“If a man does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”
– Seneca

But, the truly adult problem is we can only ever master a handful of things in our lives. This is the tragedy of adulthood. Moreover, regardless of the impression the internet and social media might give us, we really only can cope with a limited number of relationships at any time. We can’t stay true to our commitments without also admitting to ourselves that we have to say no to some of the opportunities as well.

The size, number and diversity of commitments we can manage will vary from person to person. Moreover, the ability to find inspiration or motivation in the new (rather than threat or uncertainty), will also vary for each of us.

But, there’s always a limit. There’s a point, somewhere between certainty and serendipity we need to navigate towards.

Once we have an honest sense of these limitations we can be more confident in saying no.

The Strength Of Saying No

If we can’t learn to say no in a clear and decisive fashion, even when there is something to be gained from saying yes, we’ll struggle – emotionally, morally, and relationally.

In the last few weeks I’ve said no to some interesting opportunties. I’ve twice said no when offered opportunties to play live music. One was easy, it was the kind of gig that I learnt long ago was soul-destroying. But, the other was hard – it was the kind of gig I used to really enjoy and feel that one day, I’ll probably enjoy again.

To an outsider it might seem suicdal to be saying no to any opportunity. There’s money to be made and a personal brand to be built. My current studio business is tiny – to put it kindly. I could do with the exposure.

But, right now I have a pretty clear sense of what I need to be committed to in the short term. My time needs to go in to learning, into family, into health. That made it easier to say no. In the past I haven’t always had that clarity. I’ve often said yes for lack of a compelling reason to say no – only to regret it later.

“Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”
– Marcus Aurelius

Why We Struggle To Say No

This fear of saying no was rooted, at least partly, in a fear of being seen as negative, or uncooperative. Sometimes, it was a fear that opportunity might not knock on my door again. All too often it was the fear of not being accepted. So, I would convince myself that I could keep one more plate spinning, one more commitment alive, one more task active on my already busy schedule.

If we still cling to the myth of multi-tasking, then it is easier to get sucked into this tendency, harder to confront those fears. As I’ve been saying for a long time, multi-tasking is a myth. Mono-tasking is the new black! If we want to do things well we need to say no from time to time in order to protect our priorities.

Live Your Beliefs

My daily challenge is to stay committed to doing a few things, but doing them really well. Masterfully in fact. It’s not about being negative, or being a closed door. We shouldn’t say no for the sake of saying no. We say no because we’ve done the work of defying the life, work, relationships and sense of self we want. Our is really a way of saying yes to things that matter most to us.

“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
– Epictetus

Responses
Steve 13 years ago

Great post. I’m too tired now to comprehend well, let alone respond intelligently, so I’ll come back tomorrow.

Toni 13 years ago

“As I’ve been saying for a long time, multi-tasking is a myth. Mono-tasking is the new black!”

I don’t remember you saying that before, but what do I know?

😉

But you’re correct about the need to say NO firmly and clearly to things that are too much or not helpful or will overload us. AS you suggest, the social networking industry is all about denying this, loading us up with far more ‘friends’ than we can possibly cope with. The blogosphere is less pushy, but does it all the same: there are maybe 10 blogs I check more than once a week, and I’ve deliberately abandoned RSS feeds because I can’t maintain the sense of relationship with more than that.

Interestingly, the one place I find a sense of community without the need for (mostly) personal relationships is the web forum. There are exceptions (in that I have relationships with people) but generally it’s enough to be a part of the community without the need to know people personally that keeps me from overload there.

FWIW I put out a fleece about getting a band together quite recently. It was almost as if God said “I can see your fleece 100 yards away over there, but I’m putting a burning bush over here instead”. I’ve no idea what it means, but I’m holding off for now.

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