The one word all women should use more? NO!
OPenInG a text from a friend recently, in which she asked if we could postpone our imminent lunch date by a couple of days, my heart sank.
I’d arranged a hectic week around meeting up — rescheduling now would make an absolute mess of things.
I turned to my diary, looking at who and what I could move. As it dawned on me just how difficult this was going to be, I felt my heart race and noticed I was holding my breath — two sure signs my stress levels were beginning to rise.
So I took a deep breath, gently shook my head and calmly said, out loud, ‘no’.
Before I had the chance to change my mind, I wrote the same thing — with less brevity, of course — in a reply to my pal. Pleasantly, I explained her suggestion wasn’t an option and we’d need to cancel. Of course, I then spent the next ten minutes beating myself up, wondering whether I should have been more accommodating.
We all lead busy lives — perhaps my rebuttal had made things really difficult for her. What kind of friend did that make me?
Finally, my phone pinged with her reply. It was fine to keep things as they were, she’d written, her tone warm. We went on to share a lovely lunch when I wasn’t too frazzled to enjoy it. Phew.
Honestly, can you think of any other word in the female lexicon that has the power to throw us into such guilt-ridden turmoil as ‘ no’? I certainly can’t. It’s such a tiny word and yet, as women, we baulk at saying it no matter how necessary it might be at times.
I used to be a case in point, saying yes to everything, and felt permanently and horribly stretched as a result.
When my son and daughter, now teenagers, were small I helped out with endless childrelated events I didn’t have time for. God forbid anyone think I was a lady who lunched.
no matter how exhausted I felt in the evening, if a friend asked me over for dinner or to join them at a concert or the theatre, I’d accept rather than feel like I’d let them down.
My work as a clinical psychologist often left me feeling overcommitted. While at home, my children’s wants and needs automatically came before my own.
And all for the want of a simple, monosyllabic word that always stuck in my throat. Sound familiar? I think most women leading stretched lives can relate to what I’m saying here, on many levels.
First, there’s the guilt that often goes hand in hand with saying ‘no’, because we define ourselves by how we appear to others.
We’re determined to be the best kind of friend, conscientious employee, devoted wife, fantastic parent and doting child. So we convince ourselves that declining any request from a significant other equates to failing them.
Meanwhile, we live in such a ridiculously fast-paced world that we’ve become desensitized to some of the crazy things we’re saying ‘yes’ to. I know a woman who commutes to London from France. She works in the City all week and returns to her husband and children at weekends. It could have worked had she been able to stick with the original arrangement agreed with her boss — that she’d work just three days a week.
But her inability to say ‘no’ when she was asked to do a little more here, an extra thing there, means she now routinely spends five days a week in the office. Her family life is the terrible price she’s paying for her reticence.
We can’t even say no to our mobiles: they ping constantly while we let them make obscene demands on our attention.
We run from one thing to another, never stopping long enough to appreciate how miserable all this frenzied activity is making us. I have friends who complain of permanent exhaustion — one was up at midnight last week icing cakes for her son’s school bake sale. ‘I’ve been so busy at work,’ she complained, ‘I completely forgot I’d agreed to make them.’ How she wished she’d just said ‘no’ in the first place.
Ten years ago, I could have found myself in a similar position. But these days I’m that mum — the one grudgingly admired for saying ‘sorry, I can’t’ when asked to join yet another school committee.
When I receive a social invitation that will deprive me of sleep, I politely decline. When I agree to something, I always consider first how it fits with everything else.
I’ve been on a mission to say ‘no’ more often for almost two decades. But it can still end up putting me in a spin, as my opening anecdote shows. I suppose I’m a work in progress.
As with most determinations to change, my own epiphany came from a deeply unhappy place.
First I lost my father, the financial pioneer Gilbert de Botton, to a heart attack in 2000. I was living in Paris with my now ex-husband, Angus Aynsley, and we were about to move to London with our eldest child — Zachary was just one at the time. My stepmother called at three in the morning on the day we were flying to London. She told me that my dad had died. Imagine trying to come to terms with such loss in an unfamiliar new home while embarking on a new life. I kept myself ridiculously busy in a subconscious attempt to avoid the dreadful pain of loss — and the word ‘no’ slipped out of my vernacular. But I couldn’t sleep, and every time I paused to catch my breath I’d panic. Thankfully, as is routine for psychotherapists, I was in therapy myself — it was there that I realised I’d never come to terms with my grief if I didn’t stand still long enough to feel it.
with my father gone, so too was the strongest role model I’d ever known. Dad was a very successful man, who spoke nine languages and started each day at 5am. He expected great things from his children, too.
We’d obliged: my brother, Alain de Botton, is a renowned philosopher; I studied law at Oxford and clinical psychology in Paris, while also getting involved in art.
Dad’s passing set my whole world off- kilter. Suddenly, I started looking at my husband in a new light. Having been drawn to Angus perhaps because he was very different to my father — more light-hearted, he had never felt the need to push me — I began to think I needed to be with someone more like Dad.
Slowly, a distance grew between us, and over the next decade my marriage began to break down. At the same time I was working with families as a clinical psychologist, which was rewarding but emotionally exhausting.
Something had to give — and that was my health. I lost my zest for life; I was tired all the time yet struggled to sleep. It was time to start saying ‘no’ to the life I had, so I could build a new one. First I quit my job; then, shortly after my 40th birthday, I said an extremely sad farewell to my marriage. Thankfully Angus and I remain good friends — by then we had two beautiful children together, Zachary, now 19, and Talia, 15.
Meanwhile, I started taking ownership of the word ‘no’.
I began to see that saying ‘no’ isn’t simply a case of refusing to do things. It can be more profound than that — a way of learning not to worry about the things you can’t change; saying ‘no’ to the responsibility we can feel for the woes of the world around us.
I say that as a philanthropist and environmentalist, who is well known to all manner of charities and receives many requests for help. Imagine how hard it is to say ‘no’ to a good cause.
I’ve learned that I only have so much of myself to give, before the cost to me becomes too much.
Creating better boundaries has changed my life for the better, allowing me to say ‘yes’ to things that are truly enriching — one of which has been making a dramatic career change by becoming a professional singer-songwriter.
I met music producer Andy Wright in 2014 and when he suggested we work together, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. now I’m releasing my second album and about to tour with Wet Wet Wet.
It’s such a thrill — and I don’t think any of it would have happened if I hadn’t found a way to say ‘no’ to the things that drained my energy, rather than fuelled it.
The title of one song on my new album is ‘Yes!’ and the chorus sums up much of what I feel now. ‘Yes, I am contented in the silence. Finally. It is Beautiful. And life is less than before. Yet so much more.’
Miel de Botton’s album, surrender to the Feeling, is released on Friday and is available for download at www.mielmusic.co.uk