Recently, I was asked how I would feel about serving in Primary in my ward. I paused a moment, considering the painful stone still firmly lodged over my heart, and responded simply “No.” There are multitudes of layers as to why I feel that way, and to the hours of sleep I have lost with the struggle bringing me to that solid answer, but none of that was required in the question. It was simply a time for me to respect a boundary over which I had privately and personally labored and prayed. “No.”
I have no problem saying no. That wasn’t always the case.
When I was much younger, I cared very much about pleasing people. If something was asked of me, saying yes frequently was a shortcut to praise, smiles, and even commendation. Being liked and indispensable was powerfully narcotic, and saying yes gave me a sense of worth and power. It also came with some heavy tolls.
It took me years to figure it out, but when we say yes to something, we are making room in our lives for a commitment. This can be a beautiful thing. Saying yes is one way we serve each other in the world and in church. We say yes to showing up, to contributing, to joining our talents, time, resources and energy towards something we believe in. I could totally get on board with all that! Yes! Yay!
But then… the overload. The resentment. Oh, the resentment. The cascading effect of too many people calling on you, knowing you’ll say yes. Being indispensible is a form of validation- and when people need you, seek your talents, depend on you… you should feel good about this, right? You should be happy, because look at how many people need you… Only… no.
It doesn’t work that way.
I was pleasing everyone but myself. I was not indispensible; I was a doormat. When yes became my default, given without weighing my own needs or my current capacity, I burnt out, and the result was anger at the very people and situations I had invited in with my too-numerous yesses. I had gained brief approval, fleeting smiles, and temporary feelings of importance, but at what cost?
I needed to learn how to say no.
Saying no is scary when you don’t do it often. What if people don’t like you anymore? Who am I if I’m no longer…indispensable? This led me to wonder who or what friends and leaders liked in the first place, if overloading myself was how I got my worth? And why do I need to be liked? Big questions. Internally, it got very messy, very fast.
When I decided to say no, it was more than just a tiny word. It was a statement of self. Learning to say no required personal work, honesty, facing of fears, and a self-awareness of my own capacities and limitations. It was far easier on the surface to just say yes– but that’s a short game I wasn’t willing to play anymore; it didn’t lead me anywhere real.
I practiced on small things. I practiced by saying what I actually wanted when asked. I practiced by answering truthfully where I wanted to dine, or what movie I wanted to see. These may seem like small steps, but it was shocking how acquiesces to the will of others had previously defined my life. The disingenuous and pervasive “Oh, whatever you want…” was exiled.
Learning to say no taught me self-respect. It taught me that I matter, and that my current life-load, prior commitments and desires actually count and should be weighed in my decisions. Learning to say no was a radical means to understanding my capacity to stretch without breaking, and to trust my own knowledge of where that line lies. It didn’t happen overnight, but it changed my life.
No cannot be our default any more than yes. Truly giving an honest answer— be it yes or no— requires work. When we give an honest answer to something, we are acknowledging our own value and personal awareness of ability, and we are trusting and respecting ourselves.
Which brings me to my lived Mormonism.
Being an active part of a Mormon life requires service. We all serve in some capacity, which requires we say yes. Giving honest and self-respecting answers to questions can become particularly tricky when authority and faith are involved.
I offer my “No.” as a gesture of faith. I tell my leaders my answer may one day change, but for now, I know my heart, and I am at peace with my decision. I will continue to serve and attend and do my part in my small corner of Zion, but I cannot allow resentment or grief to attend my service.
Is this selfish? I don’t think so. Were I to accept a calling that was a breaking point, not a stretching point, regardless of the calling, the cost would be too high. My reasons would be wrong-hearted; approval and acceptance by leaders, that smile of validation, is not how I gauge my place in Zion. My husband, my children, my home life would suffer at my unwillingness to respect my boundaries and honor my own inspiration. My family comes first, and a calling that will bring too much stress, sorrow, anger or grief to me is one I cannot and will not accept. I do not need that kind of approval, and I do not believe it’s required of me by God.
This is a balancing act, I admit. Being in this space requires ongoing frankness and self evaluation. I need friends and loved ones to reflect truth to me, test me, call me on it if I am missing something, as I try and keep myself upright. But life has taught me it’s the only way.
It’s not always comfortable. I must trust my own inspiration and my ability to hear what God wants for me, while still navigating life as a faithful, sustaining member. I see my own sense of self experienced through the church as layers of light. Each of our unique light bends on a slightly different wavelengths, each are needed for the whole. It’s my job to monitor my own place in the spectrum, while acknowledging I am but a small part of an immense visible spectrum. It’s hard.
I would never have been able to do it if I hadn’t practiced saying no.