The Sacred Practice of Saying ‘No’

Last week I wrote about integrity and I felt like I left something out: being a person of integrity isn’t just about what you do. It’s also about what you don’t do. 

I’ve had a few conversations lately with people who feel like their friends only show up when they need something. They’re dissatisfied with transactional relationships but that’s all they’ve ever known so they feel stuck. It’s a lonely place to live. 

I definitely want to be available to my friends – to help when needed and be able to add value to their lives. But I also want to know that we connect because we enjoy each others’ company. That if neither of us could offer the other anything, our friendship would still exist.

Truthfully, I never really thought about this until the last 10 years. I’ve been really lucky to be in the same place at the same time as some really spectacular people I happened to get along with. Plenty of friendships come and go and a few really special ones have managed to make it through decades and distance and lots of difficult life circumstances.

But then when my dad died eight hours after my son was born when we were stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas and my family was all back East in Connecticut, I started to unravel. I had to adjust to more than just being a new mom. And then when my husband died a month before my daughter was born…phew. I truly came undone. I was in survival mode in every sense of the word. We wouldn’t have made it without our friends.

There were certainly times when I felt like we were forgotten. Or when I didn’t communicate clearly how great our needs were. Those were really painful times.

And there were times when people did not have the physical, emotional, mental, or financial capacity to help us and they had to say no. And you know what? That didn’t hurt – it was frustrating to have to keep asking for help when I was already running on empty – but I couldn’t fault anyone for setting a boundary. 

I used to say yes to most everything. Mostly because who wants to miss out on an opportunity to hang out with their friends, whether doing something fun or helping alleviate a burden? (Insert that GIF of Paul Rudd opening a beer and saying “Not me”) But when I was widowed with two kids under three, I truly had nothing to offer anyone else. 

It was really hard. 

I worried how my relationships would be affected. 

I fought my own feelings of inadequacy as my inner critic told me all sorts of things about how I was not the friend they deserved. That I could (and should) do better.

And then there was the COVID-19 pandemic. I mean, it still *is* the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s hard to know how to differentiate between the time when everything was shut down and people took it seriously and…whatever this is. We got sick November 2020 and, while the kids bounced back within a few days, I developed long COVID, something I’m still dealing with now. I couldn’t even walk to get the mail or take the kids to the bus stop. I couldn’t focus much and completely neglected all of my friends. I worried about the impact my absence would have on those relationships, but I physically could not do anything differently. 

That level of complete vulnerability, where I couldn’t offer my friends a single thing except a text every few months, showed me that my friends where there. They were going through their own difficult things, but they still loved me and were emotionally present and invested even if they couldn’t be more helpful. 

And that love really changed me. I realized that our friendship didn’t require giving. It just required the commitment to love each other. And the give and take of seasons of life come naturally. 

All of these experiences where I needed help showed me that it’s okay to say no. A true friend understands (even appreciates) boundaries. We don’t have infinite supplies of mental, emotional, and physical energy. We only have so much to offer. And when we acknowledge that, by saying no when we need to, we honor our friendships by preserving the energy we *can* offer each other. 

Here are to books to help you work on establishing boundaries in your friendships:
Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab
Peace Is a Practice by Morgan Harper Nichols

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