The Surprising Difficulty of Saying No

One conundrum you face when you enter into the new world of “starting older” is that you have likely become really good at what you have always done.  You are a master of your craft.  You’ve honed a skill set that may still be of great value to the businesses and organizations you’ve been involved in.   One of my clients, an accomplished fund raiser, had been on a non profit board for a decade.  They never wanted her to leave. They had no reason to ever want her to leave the board. But she no longer enjoyed being part of that group, and the Board meetings she had once looked forward to now were an interruption and an annoyance.  I simply said, “Quit.”  She was startled because she just hadn’t thought of it!  It’s astonishingly easy to maintain long standing habits of fulfilling other peoples’ agendas rather than your own, especially when you’re good at it.

For me, a particular combination of flattery and need is a devilish tempter encouraging me to deviate from the path of doing what I want to do is being faced with   I’ve worked for 2 decades in professional associations in my field of psychoanalysis, focussing largely on social issue advocacy and public information efforts. Most psychoanalysts are not too interested in these areas—they’re more devoted, understandably, to clinical work and scholarship. This has left me in the position of having a skill set much in need and quite rare in my profession.  “We need you. You’re the only one who knows how to do this,” colleagues entreat.  I do know how to do “this” (whether “this” is a marketing or branding effort, or training my colleagues to speak to the public and use social media, or building websites to have a public voice, or reorganizing communications and social issues committees and so on)—but the problem is I have done it all before, multiple times, and I don’t want to do it again, not in that same environment.

One of the great attractions of Starting Older, as I’ve said, is novelty and the stimulation of new environments.  That’s part of what attracts me to business.  It’s new and different from the places I’ve spent my career.  But there is a siren song when my old colleagues say “We need you”.  They are insistent.  I can’t even fool myself with the old saw that “no one is irreplaceable”.  Of course it’s true, but it’s also true that I happened to have developed this expertise and have a talent for a certain kind of organizational work that is vanishingly scarce in my peculiar professional environment.  So what if they need me and only I can do it (at least in the immediate term)  and I still don’t want to because I’ve done it before?  I have to say no.

I even had a dream about it. In the dream I was the target of a big campaign, being wooed with all sorts of flattery and incentives to take on a project.  After this courting went on a very long time, I realized, still in the dream but as if it were a nightmare I needed to wake up from, that there was no money being offered (true of all my organizational work for psychoanalysis) and it was yet more communications/public information work for a psychoanalytic organization.  I woke up hugely relieved to realize it was a dream. And a little stunned to see the anxiety I was obviously still experiencing about my decisions vis a vis my old organizations and colleagues.

The truth is it’s hard to say no to people you care about and causes you care about. It’s hard to say no when you’re told “I need you” or “We need you”.  It’s hard to say no to organizations and institutions you have devoted years to.  But the great and necessary part of Starting Older is novelty and freedom, and that requires a new pitch of daring and self -centeredness.  Even to say, “Yes you need me but what I need is something else.”

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