Saying Yes to Saying No by Katey Zeh


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I was sitting in my then-therapist’s office one day, feeling exhausted and hopeless. Between mourning a break-up and constantly traveling for work, I felt like I’d been digging myself out of an ever-deepening hole of despair for months.

“When someone asks you to do something, how do you decide when to say ‘yes’?” she asked.

“If I’m not committed to something else at the same time, then I usually agree to do it,” I responded.

That was my only criterion: was I physically able to do it? If I was, I did it. 

I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time where I was surrounded by other ambitious, overachieving twenty-somethings who seemingly never turned down an opportunity that might help them succeed professionally.

Eventually after a few angst-filled years I escaped that competitive D.C. climate, moving back south to North Carolina where I live now and where the first question a person asks me isn’t “What do you do for work?”  Getting myself out of D.C. physically didn’t do much in the way of deprogramming the mindset I’d adopted there. Say yes now. Figure out the logistics later.

Fear of missing out (or FOMO) has led me down all kinds of problematic paths. Operating from a place of scarcity (opportunities are limited, so I need to take every single one that’s in front of me) left me me feeling panic-stricken and depleted. During a particularly overwhelming time last fall, with my heart racing and stomach churning, I knew something had to shift, or I was seriously going to lose it.

I began to wonder, what might it feel like for me not to jump at the next opportunity, but rather to consider if it was something I not only had space in my calendar to do, but if it was something I actually wanted to do?

I had my first real test of this a few weeks ago. The opportunity to volunteer on an influential committee came my way. The impulse to volunteer was there, but my inner voice told me to pause and to take a deep breath. “Let me think about it,” I said.

Eventually I turned it down with only a slight twinge of FOMO.

What helped me was turning to The Wholehearted Continuum, a guiding set of principles developed by my friend and coach Rosie Molinary. She encouraged me to consult it any time I was presented with an opportunity, asking myself the following six questions:

  • Am I thrilled to be asked?
  • Am I happy to prepare?
  • Am I eager to go—and ok with leaving my family behind?
  • Will I be joyful while I’m there?
  • Am I ready and willing to take on the less glamorous aspects of work?
  • Am I going to want to bask in the afterglow after it’s done?

If the answer to each question isn’t “yes,” it will undoubtedly make me feel resentful if I take it on, which will only eat up precious energy that would have been better spent on something else.

As I continue my practice of cultivating joy this year, this practice is essential for creating space in my life to do what brings me pleasure and a sense of purpose. Joy is no longer optional. It’s essential for continuing on with the work of justice-love in the world, something I hope to continue doing for decades to come.

If you’re a teacher, an activist, a minister, or otherwise working to make the world a kinder and more compassionate place, I encourage you to practice the wisdom of saying yes to saying no more often. Start with something small like taking off a to-do list thing that isn’t really necessary. Pretty liberating, isn’t it? 

Rev. Katey Zeh is a Baptist minister, strategist, writer, and speaker who inspires communities to create aRA82 more just, compassionate world.  She has written for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazine, and the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion. She is the co-host of Kindreds, a podcast for soul sisters. Her book Women Rise Up will be published by the FAR Press this year.  Find her on Twitter at @kateyzeh or on her website kateyzeh.com

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Categories: Faith, Gratitude, Justice

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13 replies

  1. Thanks Katey perfect timing to be reminded to say Yes to saying No – and thanks for sharing Rosie’s The Wholehearted Continuum, – joyful journey ahead

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  2. It was thrilling to read this post, especially since I was wrestling with this very topic last night. My instinct when asked to look after my grandchildren is always to say “Yes, of course.”

    But we are moving to an old people’s home (contingent on the sale of our present house). We’ll be living ten miles away, and the daily visit to pick up my granddaughter from her school bus stop would involve driving through some insane commuter traffic right at rush hour, which lasts from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. I’m already having nightmares about it. I also said “Yes” to a request to drive my granddaughter to and from summer camp every day, camp hours being wildly out of sync with her parents’ working hours.

    Yet I’d hoped moving to the senior community would give me more time to myself, not less. Add to this the fact that my husband, many years older than I, is becoming increasingly frail. I should have said “No,” but instead I said “Yes.” It’s my own fault for being a moral coward, but that’s the way I’ve always been, unfortunately.

    So thank you for this post, Katey, you have given me much to ponder this morning.

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    • Oh, I feel the struggle in this. The desires to be helpful, to be please, to be the dependable one–those are strong and alluring. I hope that you find a way to establish some boundaries that will allow you some space for yourself. I really empathize.

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  3. What an inspiring post this is! I bet nearly every woman in at least the United States has faced this FOMO (a new acronym for me, but I like it) and opportunities to say yes or no. Thanks for sharing the questions from The Wholehearted Continuum. Good lessons here.

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  4. This is something I definitely need to think of too because I usually say yes way more often than I say no.

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  5. Wonderful questions to ask myself before saying “yes”, Katey. Thank you for sharing.

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  6. Oh, saying yes to no – I love this phrase and just today I discovered that I am saying yes to volunteering that will only work if I am able to stay here. Otherwise, it is taking up time that I need to be in this place before I believe…thank you for reminding me…and this essay is so important to those of us who have a tendency to say yes, when what we really need is to let go…

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    • Sara, I identify so much with what you said here. I think we often write the things that we most need to hear–but I can tell from your comments and from the ones others wrote that it’s something ALL of us need to hear regularly and learn to practice. But, easier said than done.

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