One word, so many challengesrabiem22

When I was in first year, a man selling charity wristbands approached me as I walked down Lion Yard. I say ‘approached’; a more accurate word would be ‘grabbed’. I’m not a terrible human (I hope) so I’m all for giving to charity, but there was something about this encounter that left me uneasy.

“We’re asking for five pounds,” the man said, waving his wristband. “I’m really sorry,” I said, going to walk past, “I don’t have any cash on me.” This was true. “With respect madam,” he said, “there’s a cash machine right there.” And he clamped a hand on both of my shoulders and physically steered me towards it. The cash machine didn’t give out notes smaller than £10. I thought that would settle it, but he just said, “That’s fine.” I took out £10 and waited while he rummaged in his bag, presumably finding my change. Instead, he drew out a wristband. “Here you go,” he said. “Have a nice day.”

Knowing there are 100 ways is one thing, but when you suck at all of them it doesn’t make life much easier

I walked away flooded with a sense of acute shame. Yes, it was only a tenner, and it strikes me as pretty selfish to begrudge money that goes to charity. But the manner in which it had been secured forced me to confront an unwelcome truth: I was awful at – incapable of – saying no.

A quick Ecosia search on ‘how to say no’ offers article upon article: ‘100 Ways to Say No’, ‘50 Ways to Say No’, ‘Three Ways to Say No Without Feeling Guilty’. Knowing there are 100 ways is one thing, but when you suck at all of them it doesn’t make life much easier. It’s an affliction which, I find, goes hand in hand with excessive apologising, and I used to brush it off as the mark of a ‘nice person’ – I just didn’t like disappointing anyone. But there’s obviously a difference between going out of your way to help someone you love and putting yourself in situations that make you feel uncomfortable, exhausted or pressurised. Not being able to say no has landed me in some far-from-nice situations, and they can have serious repercussions. 

Saying no is something I still struggle with, but with increased self-confidence and the dawning realisation that if somebody wants to hold a grudge against me for saying ‘no’ that’s their problem, not mine, I’m getting gradually better at it. And that’s something I’m not going to apologise for.

You don’t always have to give a reason

Of course, there will be situations in which you genuinely owe someone an explanation, but if this isn’t the case, don’t tie yourself in knots over it. Phrases such as ‘that doesn’t work for me’, ‘I’m afraid I can’t this time’ and ‘sorry I’m not able to help’ are non-specific and effectively shut down any negotiation, meaning people are unlikely to chase you up again. It also saves the anguish of coming up with an excuse. Take it from me (admittedly a staunch atheist who, in drunken desperation, once told a guy I didn’t want to go back to his room because I was a very conservative Christian who disapproved of pre-marital sex; I know, I’m not proud of it): you do not need to justify saying no to something you have no obligation to do.

It’s not realistic to do everything

Or sensible, or healthy. If you have reservations about doing something, it’s usually worth paying attention to them. It doesn’t matter if your concerns are financial (‘I can’t afford another night out’), practical (‘I really need to save time for something else’) or personal (‘my friend’s always asking for help but is never there for me’); if your most compelling reason for saying ‘yes’ to something is guilt, it’s probably not worth it.

Saying no at the start is better than changing your mind later

In the past, my aversion to saying no has meant I’ve agreed to things I know I have no intention of actually doing, just to postpone the potential point of conflict. But the longer you leave it, the bigger the conflict will be. You’re not avoiding an awkward situation by saying yes; in fact, it will only lead to resentment and hard feelings.

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