The ability to say no is one of the essential building blocks we need for a happy existence. Why? Because you can’t have a fulfilling and productive life if you pass through your days feeling dumped on and powerless.

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Dr. Obinna Ikwechegh

That’s the guidance of Dr. Obinna Ikwechegh, psychiatrist and physician leader for behaviorial health services in the greater Winston-Salem area and eastern North Carolina for Novant Health. 

And this summer, the topic of being overwhelmed is getting a fresh look. In May, the World Health Organization updated its definition of “burnout” from a “state” of exhaustion to a “syndrome” resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

Burnout doesn't just happen at work, of course. You can experience burnout in many other ways, such as being an overcommitted volunteer or serving as caregiver to an elderly parent or chronically ill child. 

Most of us have learned that saying "yes” is an easy way to keep our jobs and those around us happy. So we consulted Ikwechegh, (pronounced EE-quay-chay)  who said there are ways to navigate the minefield of “no.”



OK, what’s the last big thing you said “no” to?

It was about participating in a project. I was supposed to be a co-chair of a group. I said I thought it was a good idea, but I pointed out that someone else should be given the opportunity because I already had too many things I was handling across five hospitals. I was saying no to a request that was going to take a lot of time while validating that it was a great idea.

Why is it hard for many of us to say no at work?

In the workplace we want to appear to be helpful, a team player. We don’t want people to think we’re selfish. But in the end, it’s about your own integrity. If you have core responsibilities at work and someone tries to give you something that keeps you from those, saying “no” is part of your integrity.

In the end, integrity comes from doing what you say you’re going to do.

Is there a personal cost to saying yes too often?

Yes. If you feel you have no control over your daily life, the default emotion is resentment. It colors your other experiences. The other thing it leads to is a sense of burnout – you see people who lose their spark and become less productive.  



Where you do start?    

You have to realize that every time you say “no” to one thing you are saying “yes” to another.

One simple example. I have young children and it’s important to spend time with them. If a friend asks me to hang out after work, that’s attractive. But time with my children is more important. So when I’m saying “no” to him, even if it disappoints, at the same time I am saying “yes” to my children.

What’s your advice to “pleasers” who struggle with “no”?

I am a psychiatrist, and so my tendency is to approach this from a therapy model/perspective. I tell people all the time, “Say no to everything for the next three months.” I realize, of course, that no one can say no to everything like that. But having this conversation internally helps guide one. It’s not the amount of times you say yes that connect you to where you need to be. It’s being able to connect with yourself without being resentful.

What strategies do you suggest?

You can start by asking: “Can I sleep on it?” We call this giving yourself an exit ramp. It gives you some time to think about it and then you get back to them. If you’re struggling to say no, the low-hanging fruit is to allow yourself to negotiate. Think about offering a different solution. Maybe you can offer resources that will help get another person started.

Any final advice?

Be honest, graceful and unapologetic about your “no.” You might say, “I have four other things that I’m juggling right now and I just can’t do it at this time. But if something comes up in the future I’m happy to help.” That way you are continuing to offer help in the future at a time when you can say "yes" from a place of integrity.

At Novant Health, our behavioral health specialists can help you deal with these issues and regain control of your life. We are available 24 hours a day to provide care for children, adolescents and adults.