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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Saying NO is how you can make the world a better place (plus 10 ways to say no)

Updated: Jan 14

NOTES: Suicide is mentioned briefly in this post. Also, I realize there's great privilege in even being able to say/feel like one can say no. But, still, many of us need to. And, those of us who are able to must create and protect space for people who can't as readily (due to career stage, identity, socioeconomic and caregiving constraints, etc.). At the same time, those of us who can should also hold accountable the people who have said no for too long and who owe a debt of collective effort and service to our professional and personal spheres.


 
On lined journal paper, a heading reads: Things I've said no to. January 2022. Bullet points below list three items: applying for Kavli training contract (1/22). Solo goals workshop for Meteor (1/22). LIFE search committee (1/22).
Snapshot of the first page of my 'no"-tebook | Credit: BGMerkle, © 2023

My social purpose these days is helping other people enhance their capacity to make the world a better place. [1]


But, there's a(t least one) big, basic problem. So many people I know who are actively making the world a better place are too busy to have lunch, desperately need a bathroom break, and show up even when they are jittery with lack of sleep. Even when the work feels invisible. Even when our work is actively obstructed.


This is vital work in the world. And, it means a lot to us to do this work. But, if we can't keep it up, we can't keep doing it (as so many people have already wisely and adamantly pointed out). That's not okay.


I've more recently come to understand that saying yes to this work also does not mean that the work we do is actually making the world a better place. Even though that's why we're staying up late. Even though that's why we're overworking and overwhelmed and still replying to emails asking for help and also dropping what we're doing when someone walks in our office door looking for advice or commiseration.


The honest truth is that I know, admire, and collaborate with so many (too many) people working for change who grapple with deep burnout (and resentment). And, in this state of mind, we get reactionary. Folks have long documented and tried to address the imbalances between who does the emotional and "housekeeping" labor in a workplace and who does the "promotable" work like writing papers and grant applications. [2]


There's also the acute dilemma of having lots of ideas about how to make the world, our workplaces, and our communities, a better place. This is a particularly sticky patch of mud when we are in the company of like-minded, motivated people who collectively know how to plan programs, secure funding, and run the kinds of activities, trainings, and research that make a difference. That gumbo on our feet is heavy because it is the accumulation of all. the. things. we are trying to do at the same time. Because somebody's gotta, or some poor soul (or an opportunity for real change) will fall through the cracks.


I'm not being sarcastic; high-stakes FOMO can be the guts of the dilemma. If that risk has been resolved, then there's also the pressure of "this is probably the only time this internal funding opportunity will happen." Or, we keep adding to our load because we love working with each other. And so on.


But, here's what I can tell you after nearly 20 years of working in community development and change management: in our state of too-deep commitment to world-bettering, we actually help maintain that disparity.


What I'm saying is that saying yes can lead to not enough of us (individually or collectively) to go around. (I'm not saying anything new here.) And being strapped out like that can fuel fatigue that spirals into cynicism. (Again, not a new point.) When cynicism creeps in, it shades out what used to be hope. [3] (Even that isn't a new point.)


But, it seems to be new for a lot of early-career folks I mentor, and devastatingly too many of my experienced colleagues. So, I'll say it straight up: standing in that cynical, burnt-out shadow is not a sustainable, effective position from which we can make any positive difference in the world.


I've known people who left their careers, moved out of state, or even considered the ultimate, utterly devastating escape route because they couldn't or didn't say no when they needed to. They didn't say no when they felt that visceral vibe that says, "I don't like this" or "This isn't right" or "I don't want to be doing this" or "I'm just too exhausted to care again/more/still."


We don't listen to that vibe. So many women I talk with tamp it down, bury it under more commitments, flush it with another shot of espresso, tuck it into a corner with a potluck dinner where we wine and rightfully whine.


I'm not pointing fingers here. I didn't listen to that "should say no" vibe for years. (Let's be honest, I still have trouble saying no. Why else would I care about it so much?!?)


I've said yes to things that:

  • seemed like good opportunities;

  • felt like an honor;

  • I couldn't figure out how to decline;

  • I didn't think I could (or was allowed to) decline;

  • might, just maybe, be the ticket to a full-time job where I work now; [4]

  • I was especially good at;

  • clearly needed someone with strategic planning/management expertise;

  • were proposed by friends or preferred collaborators;

  • shone the shiny sheen of ✨publications✨ and 💫grants💸;

  • could help students who felt lost, abandoned, no self-confidence, etc.;

  • and so on.

  • This list is genuinely endless.


And, of course, as someone who develops and runs programs, seeks funding for ideas at all scales, and does not specialize in data analysis, I've absolutely been the person who is requesting, inviting, wheedling, and sweet-talking other people into saying yes to me. I've also quietly really hoped that some people wouldn't set a boundary and wouldn't say no to me, because what they did was so important for me and others. For example, I could name at least one vital, now-dormant blog, and three-plus people I just love working with and know we can't finish a certain thing without them. But, they all said no or "I'm done." And to be honest, I'd talk them right back into the work if I could.


It took me a long time to get to where I could see this all for what it was, in my own life and in the settings where I'm working with or recruiting people similarly skilled and over-committed.


Flatly, it took a long time to understand that what I thought was helping was possibly not, and possibly even counterproductive.


In the meantime, I was fried. I was short-tempered from hunger and lack of sleep. I was in the dumps from too little time unplugged and out of doors. I prioritized emails over time with my 90-something grandfather. My teeth hurt (past and present tense) from clenching my jaw, and my neck and shoulder muscles are so tight I get vertigo when the stress ratchets up even higher. I was late to everything (that I remembered to attend!), not understanding I was caught in a vortex of overcommitment and time blindness [5].


None of this was good for my health, my sense of self, my personal or professional relationships, or, importantly, the people, species, places, and organizations I was overworking so hard to help.


Does any of this sound familiar?


I'm guessing it does, not just because you're up too late too. But also, because a swamping lot has been written about academic burnout, the imbalance of who does what in homes, work, and society, and so much more.


So, why am I belaboring this?


I just had another conversation with another brilliant woman who has been sucked into two things she would never prioritize if she gave herself room to say no. And, that's a slippery slope. She's early career, so there's still plenty of time to pile on more and more and more.


It's crucial that we reckon with this. (And, again, I'm not the first or most eloquent to say so. But it's on my mind, and I keep having these conversations. So, here we are.)


If we're not tending to ourselves, and being realistic about what is sustainable [6] (even while we're fabulously and rightfully ambitious), we're going to be a generation of women felled by strokes and major auto-immune illnesses in our 40s and 50s. This spring, I saw another round of tweets from women mourning colleagues who succumbed to exactly this state of extreme stress. It got my attention in a specific, vivid way. I'm not ready to be out of commission, let alone out of circulation entirely, especially not because I agreed to too many meetings. And, I'm devastated by the mere thought that some of the people I lean on, collaborate with, and look-up-to risk the same. That's why René Brooks' advice -- "guard your yes with your life" -- resonates so much. This actually is about our lives and whether the way we live them leaves us healthy and rested enough to help make the world better (starting with ourselves and our loved ones).


But, saying no is really, really, really hard. [2, again] That's why I've been looking for mechanisms to help me say no. [7]


 

Here are 10 ways to say no that worked for me.


I'm sharing them here (as loose scripts) in case they can help you or someone you know who needs to say no or even back out of something.


Note: if you see a prompt to subscribe to keep reading, you can just subscribe for free!


A red cloth cover of a journal; embroidery on the cover depicts stereotypes of Asian scenes such as bamboo, people riding camels, and pagodas
The fancy, embroidered cover of my no-tebook relegated it to the too-special-to-use pile for two decades. My 'just say no" efforts liberated it.

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