I remember it clearly, the first time I said NO. I thought I was going to lose my job because of it. I was in my early 20's and working as Secretary to the Marketing Manager of a company that manufactured and sold air compressors. As part of the job I also did projects for some of the engineers.
I was and always had been a people pleaser. I genuinely liked helping people and would go out of my way to be helpful. I also had a deep need to be needed, which, I now know, was a large motivating factor behind my (sometimes excessive) helpfulness. The trouble is, when you go out of your way to be so helpful it doesn't make people like and respect you more. In fact it's just the opposite. People start to take advantage. I'm not saying they deliberately do it, but they do it.
If you show that you'll go out of your way to be so helpful, even at your own expense, it makes others lazy. In my case, a project could sit on an engineer's desk for weeks before he suddenly realized that a deadline was coming up. He would quickly throw some information together in a haphazard way and dump it on my desk for me to sort out. Since this was last minute, it often meant that in order to meet the deadline I had to stay late or work through my lunch hour and generally knock myself out to get it done. Because by then it was on my desk, so it was my problem, right?
Now, I'm really not stupid, but at that time, it had never occurred to me that I could do anything to change the situation. I was a good girl, and had been brought up to always do as I was told. If I didn't I would get in trouble, so why would my work life be any different? I gradually started to realize though that something wasn't quite right with this picture. I started to realize what people were doing - it was also a bit of a give-away when it didn't ever happen to the other secretaries, only to me.
One day, our whole department was going out to lunch to celebrate a special occasion. We had been planning and looking forward to it for a long time. Just before we were due to leave for lunch I was away from my desk and I returned to find some work that had been left there by one of the engineers. He had already left to go to the celebration and he had left some work that was so urgent (he said) that it meant in order to complete it I would have to stay behind and miss the celebration. At that point something inside me snapped. I added my own comment to the note that he had left: "No! Do it yourself!" I put it back on his desk and left to join the others for lunch.
I enjoyed our lunch time celebration and did not regret what I had done. But as we were leaving to go back to the office I felt a very uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Oh no, what had I done? This was so terrible, I was sure my boss would fire me. It was just bad. He would be right to fire me.
When I arrived back at the office I knocked on my boss's door. He invited me in and I told him what I had done. I thought it best that he hear it from me first. What he said next shocked me. He didn't fire me. He didn't tell me what a terrible thing I'd done. Instead, he said "It's about time!" He told me that he could see how the others took advantage of me and they did it because that's the behavior that I had taught them. I had taught them how to treat me. He was pleased that I was finally standing up for myself!
It took me several years after that to really get the hang of saying no and to stop setting myself up for such treatment. But now it's much easier. You should try it. "No, I don't have time for that right now." "No, I won't be able to fit that in." Or just plain "NO." If you are a people pleaser or if you just have a hard time saying no, realize this: the world won't fall apart if you use the word. People won't hate you - quite the opposite in fact. One thing I have realized is that people respect you so much more if you don't let them walk all over you.
No is a very powerful word. Practice it now. Look in the mirror and practice it. The more you use it, the better it feels. The trouble is, when we say yes all the time we actually start to resent the fact that we said yes and what that means for us (the extra work we have to do, the places we have to go, the people we have to be with) and we start to resent the people who ask us. It's one thing to say yes to something because it's what we really want to do and it will bring us pleasure. It's quite another to say yes because we think we should or we think we'll upset people if we don't. We really do teach people how to treat us and people will start treating you much better when you start to say no.
Go on, be brave. Practice it now. What can you say no to today? If you have a hard time doing it as soon as somebody asks you to do something, then try telling them "I need to think about it" when they ask you. That will give you time to prepare, and then you can go back to them and say no later, when you feel more comfortable with it. And one more thing - you don't need to give excuses. Often when we do say no we think we have to give a big explanation of why we're saying no - to help the other person (and us) feel better. You don't need to explain. Just say no - that's all.
Try it. You'll be so glad you did and it will get easier.