How often do you say no? What drives you to do it? How do you feel once it leaves your lips or after you press send?
I’ve been noticing that many people in my life have trouble saying no, and I am one of them. As a multipotentialite, it can be even harder for us to say no because as Emilie writes, “We love coming up with new ideas and bringing projects to life.” This leads us to say yes a lot, which makes us say yes even more. Here’s what I mean.
When we discover that we’re very good at the things we say yes to, we get more opportunities to do more things, and we keep saying YES! to keep the positive feedback cycle going. But when we don’t say no as much as – or more than! – we say yes, we end up overwhelmed and at risk of burnout.
When we find out that we’re not very good at the things we say yes to (or we need a new challenge) we…you guessed it…say YES! to new things. When we are not skilled at saying no, we tend to load up those new things onto our plate…without dropping the previous things that no longer serve us. Can you relate?
In “The Power of a Positive No”, William Ury writes: “If you can learn how to say No skillfully and wisely, you can create what you want, protect what you value, and change what doesn’t work.” Let me give you some examples of how this worked in my multipotentialite journey through graduate school.
When I started my PhD, I quickly cultivated the phrase “I’m on a different path” to help myself—and then others—accept the fact that I didn’t want just one job as a full-time professor. This was a very big deal to me, my classmates, and my supervisors because at that time, a professor was the only job that a PhD like mine was supposed to lead to. But I knew that the experience I wanted as a graduate student and the life I wanted to live post-graduation involved having the freedom to pursue multiple occupations and interests at the same time. This required saying no…a lot.
For a self-described people-pleaser habitually worried about provoking haters, I probably said no more in this period of my life than I ever have. I regularly declined invitations to events that previous versions of me wouldn’t dare to, ignored particular academic metrics I deemed irrelevant to my post-PhD goals, and turned down projects that didn’t align with my values. Here’s why it was worth it.
Say no so that you can create what you (really) want
Saying no to influential people was my first step in creating the multipotentialite life I dreamed of.
I started by saying no to increasingly forceful requests from one of my PhD supervisors to change the direction of my research. While I didn’t yet know the term multipotentialite, I had used my master’s degree to joyfully work at the intersection between two seemingly disparate fields: anti-racism and educational psychology. I intended to use my PhD studies to continue using the idea synthesis skills that came naturally to multipotentialite me, but my supervisor kept pushing me further away from the intersection I had worked so hard to create.
Presenting my research to diverse audiences showed me the huge benefits of what Emilie describes as “‘speak[ing] the language’ of people in different fields.” I really felt like I was getting somewhere!
What excites you enough in your multipotentialite dreams to help you say yes to your role as the architect of what you really want?
So I had to say no to my supervisor, in increasingly more direct ways, as we engaged in what seemed like endless negotiations. This was extremely uncomfortable to me. I am a person who has always been taught to silence myself in order to respect my elders and to avoid (at all costs!) cutting myself off from further opportunities. I worried excessively every time I said no to another research directive from my supervisor. That is, until the death of a friend—a friend who perfectly represented the research I had been doing—provided the push I needed to get a new supervisor. I said YES to honoring my friend with the new research path I was creating. That path has led me to a fulfilling career teaching at the intersection of mental health literacy and anti-racism in education.
Say no so that you can protect what you value
Saying no to tasks that others—including former versions of me—deemed important was the next stage in protecting the life I had begun to deeply value as a multipotentialite.
After I changed supervisors, conversations about research plans became much easier. My new supervisor gave me so many opportunities to collaborate on research in many different areas of the fairly new area of mental health literacy education in Canada. Because she already lived strong social justice values, my desire to implement anti-racist principles into my work was no problem to her.
My next challenge began when I started to feel that multipotentialite instinct to diversify my projects. I began practicing ways to gently yet directly say “DON’T MAKE ME WRITE ANOTHER LITERATURE REVIEW!” without making my outside voice match the screaming voice in my head. I was also engaging in professional development outside my PhD. As a broke grad student, I used multiple free 30-day trials to learn how to use a complicated eLearning tool that I thought would make some of our educational resources more engaging and relevant to the learners we were designing them for. I also completed a certification in counseling that made me want to find a way to apply more of my verbal and nonverbal communication skills into my research.
I valued all of the new parts of who I was becoming, and I wanted them to be reflected in the work I was putting my heart and soul into. So, when I was given another literature review to complete, I said no. This horrified my parents– one does not simply say no to their supervisor—but I had chosen my supervisor well. She took a breath and asked, “What do you want to do?”
I silently celebrated and then gave her approximately 17 ideas. She asked me to refine and reduce them, then made me promise that what I chose would keep me on the path to completing my degree on time. I agreed, and she let me design an engaging, interactive online mental health literacy course for foster families instead of the traditional correspondence course that was initially intended to be the result of the literature review.
Finding the courage to say no to something mundane – creating another literature review – ended up being a gift that extended beyond myself. It created a space to use my unique multipotentialite combo to create an impactful learning resource for the foster family community.
What do you value enough to protect with a NO that is long overdue?
Say no so that you can change what no longer works
Saying no to systems that no longer worked for me was the last stage in my PhD journey of saying no. Truthfully, I’m still working on this one. In graduate school, I had to say no to the expected PhD student standard of working on my research five days a week. Because I declared myself to be “on a different path” than my classmates, I needed to devote regular time to figuring out what else I was going to do with my PhD in Education. I declared every Friday a “professional development day” and, because I was achieving all of my milestones towards completing my thesis, my supervisor agreed to it. As an added bonus, I found that having four focused days to attend class and get my work done was more productive than having all five days to get around to my research “eventually.”
In my current life, I am realizing that what no longer works for me is getting caught up in multiple cycles of burnout and recovery. As my multipotentialite life continues to expand, I am learning that I need to be the container for the multiplicity of my passions and interests. I am learning that many more NOs are required for me to create a healthy multipotentialite life: a life that considers the protection of my own mental health as sacred as the mental health of others I aim to help with my work. That’s going to require getting real about what isn’t working anymore every time I reach a new stage in my multipotentialite path.
Will you join me on the journey?
Do you have trouble saying no? How might saying no allow you to say yes to something that truly matters to you?
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