saying no | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

New Videos From My Public Talks

I want to share a few videos from a talk I gave recently at a job-seeking group.  I’ve revamped my “Transcending Procrastination” presentation to add some more techniques and ideas, and these videos offer some samples of the new content.  I hope you find them useful and fun.

In this first video, I talk about how to develop a longer attention span, and thus get more done in a single sitting in your work, by practicing holding your attention on your breathing or an object:

In the next video, I talk about how being able to say “no” to requests is an important part of staying focused and motivated in our projects.  Often, this is a matter of getting comfortable with the intense sensations that can come up when we refuse a request:

Here, I answer a question about dealing with job interview-related anxiety, discussing how useful it can be to find the place in your body where you’re feeling the nervousness or tension, and breathe into that place.  This can be helpful for anxiety in other situations as well:

Creativity And Boundary-Setting

If someone told you that a piece you wrote is garbage and you’re a moron for writing it, could you object to their behavior?

When I work with people who are having trouble starting a project, this is often an area where they feel blocked.  They don’t trust their ability to protect themselves against mistreatment.  They feel reluctant to “put their work out there” because they don’t think they can handle the criticism that might come their way.

It’s also unsurprising that these people suffer greatly at the hands (or maybe “claws” is the better word) of their inner critic.  Because they don’t feel capable of standing up to the critic, and they know how viciously the critic will savage their work, they understandably find it easier not to start projects they’re interested in.

The Power of “No”

Why is it so hard for many people to stand up to abuse, whether from within or from others?  For one thing, I think many of us, growing up, were shamed or punished for saying “no,” or “talking back.”  Many of us came to believe we were not allowed to set boundaries with others, and perhaps that it was “spoiled” and “childish” to do so.

When I work with someone dealing with this issue, one thing we often explore is how it feels for them to say “no.”  I tend to find that, even if the person is alone with me, and there are no judgmental or critical people within earshot, they still feel some shame around doing this.  They don’t look me in the eye as they say it, and their “no” comes out soft and weak.

Often, if they can release their inhibition, and let out a loud, firm “no,” they not only feel empowered — the project they’ve been putting off starts to look less scary and more doable.  Because they know, from firsthand experience, that they can set clear boundaries with others, the prospect of criticism no longer frightens them so much.

I think another benefit of learning to say a powerful “no” — which may seem like a paradox — is that criticism doesn’t make us as angry when we develop this ability.  Work, and life in general, take on more ease when we know we can handle ourselves if we’re attacked — in a way that’s similar, I think, to the quiet self-assurance of a martial arts master.

Priorities Depend On Boundaries

Yet another reason the ability to say “no” is important is that it allows us to set, and enforce, our own priorities.  Often, I’ve noticed, people who are having trouble starting creative projects say they “just can’t find the time.”  However, the reason they “can’t find the time” is usually that they’re afraid to refuse others’ requests.

Whenever someone calls on the phone, for instance, they can’t bring themselves to let the call go to voicemail.  Nor can they be the one to end the conversation.  After all, the other person might feel neglected, and become angry and critical.

When they experiment with declining requests, and get comfortable with the feelings that come up when they do that, the book or business they’ve been “planning” for years ceases to look like such a daunting undertaking.

I’m not saying we should be critical toward others, or take revenge on those who put us down.  As I’ll discuss later, that’s just another way of giving in to the inner critic — by merging with or embodying it.  But I do think learning to say a forceful, unapologetic “no” can bring us a refreshing sense of creative freedom.

A Key Distinction That Helps Us Say “No”

This might not sound revolutionary to some, but I recently realized I’ve made great strides in my ability to say “no” to others’ requests.  A few days ago, a friend called, saying she was having a surprise party for another friend that night and she wanted me to be there.  I was planning to go to a talk at a local bookstore, and I’d been looking forward to it for a while.  I told my friend I’d already made plans, and stuck to my guns even when she was incredulous that I’d go to a lecture instead of her party.

This was definitely a departure from what I was like three years ago.  Back then, I probably wouldn’t even have mentioned to my friend that I had other plans—I would have agreed to go to her party without hesitation.  I used to feel shame and guilt at the prospect of telling someone I wouldn’t do what they wanted and possibly upsetting them.  It didn’t matter to me whether the other person’s request was reasonable, or whether I wanted to do what they asked—all of my attention was on how they’d be likely to react, and how awful I’d feel, if I inconvenienced or hurt them.

The Key Realization

About a year ago, I had a realization that changed my attitude toward saying “no.”  I came to understand the difference between taking responsibility for how other people feel and simply caring how they feel.  When you take responsibility for someone’s feelings, you consider yourself entirely at fault when they feel hurt or angry.  It’s as if you’re responsible for their childhoods, the state of their intimate relationships, their moods, what they had for breakfast, and all the other factors that influence human beings’ emotional reactions.

As farfetched as this idea may seem, most of us learn and buy into it early in our development.  Psychologist Carl Semmelroth aptly puts this point in The Anger Habit In Relationships:

As ridiculous as it seems, it is commonly assumed that our partners make us angry. Most people justify their anger by pointing at something someone else does. And, unfortunately, many spouses and children see themselves as responsible for the anger of other family members . . . . Children learn this perverse theory about anger from their parents and teachers; they learn that they are responsible for other people’s anger.

However, as I finally learned, you can actually empathize with someone and be concerned for their well-being—you can care about how they feel—without blaming yourself every time they get upset.

For a long time, I didn’t understand this distinction.  I thought I had two choices in relating to others’ emotions—either bear full responsibility for them, or have no concern for them at all.  Because lacking interest in them seemed callous to me, I chose to blame myself whenever someone else suffered.  This approach had me avoid saying “no” in almost every situation, because refusing someone else’s request would likely upset them and I’d blame and punish myself for it.  It was a huge relief when I recognized that caring about people didn’t require me to slavishly agree with or obey them.

Simply understanding this distinction, however, wasn’t always enough to keep me from caving in to others’ requests for fear of hurting them.  I’d been avoiding conflict to spare others’ feelings for so long that it had turned into an unconscious habit, and I had to carefully monitor my behavior to make sure I didn’t lapse into my old pattern.

Monitoring Yourself In Real Time

I found that the best way to do this was to observe myself carefully when I interacted with people and watch for moments when my mind became fully absorbed in how they were feeling.  In those moments, all of my attention is on preventing others from being upset, and none of it is on how I feel or what I want.  I can tell when I’m slipping into this mindset when I ask myself a simple question:  “how am I feeling right now?”

If I can’t answer this question—if I have no awareness of how I feel—it means I’ve lapsed into taking responsibility for others’ emotions.  As long as I make sure to ask myself this question when someone makes a request of me, I don’t find myself giving in with no regard to my own needs and desires.

Another method I’ve developed to avoid blaming myself for others’ upset is to watch out for tactics people use to get me feeling responsible for their emotional states.  For instance, some people will accuse you of not caring about them when you don’t do something they want—when, in fact, you are absolutely concerned for their well-being but you have other plans or priorities in that moment.  Or, they’ll demand to know how you could “hurt them” like this—implying that you, not anyone or anything else in their lives, are solely responsible for any hurt they’re experiencing.

Often, people aren’t consciously trying to manipulate you when they employ these tactics—they’re just using the style of communication they’ve grown accustomed to.  However, consciously or otherwise, these people are trying to induce you to do what they ask by convincing you to feel responsible for their emotions.  “If I’m upset or dissatisfied, you’re to blame,” they’re basically telling you, “so if you don’t want to be at fault and feel ashamed, you must give me what I want.”  If you keep an eye out for techniques like these, and notice how they can shake your composure, you’ll get better at catching yourself when you’re about to give in to someone’s demands.

At first, weaning yourself off the habit of taking responsibility for others’ emotions can be a painful process.  Initially, I felt very uncomfortable saying “no” to someone’s request in the face of their irritation or distress.  I worried that people wouldn’t want to be around me if I didn’t always go along with their wishes.  In fact, however, my newfound ability to stand up for my needs and wants hasn’t ruined any of my relationships.  If anything, telling others what I need and want has helped them learn more about me as a person, and thus had them feel more deeply connected with me.

(This article appeared in the Carnival of Improving Life, located at

Five Reasons To Be Grateful For “Difficult People” In Your Life

Much has been said about the positive effects gratitude creates in our lives.  Learning to be thankful for what we have today, and the learning experiences we’ve had in the past, empowers us with optimism and joy that help us pursue our goals.

For a long time, I agreed with this idea generally speaking, but I had trouble finding something to be grateful for about the “difficult” people I’ve dealt with in the past.  Whether they were colleagues at work I had disagreements with, intimate partners whose relationships with me ended badly, strangers who made comments I saw as insulting, or someone else, I believed I’d be better off without having had some people in my life.

My attitude changed one day when I resolved to sit down at the computer, run down a list of difficult people from my past, and find something about each person I could be thankful for.  The results were quick and profound.  Even when I was only a few names down the list, I started recognizing how much resentment I still harbored toward the people I named.  Holding on to my anger at the difficult people, I realized, took real effort, and put physical strain on my body.  As I found something to be grateful for about each person, I felt the pressure releasing little by little, and energy freeing up to fuel me in pursuing my calling.

I believe this happens because, when we take the view that we’d have been better off without someone in our lives, we engage our minds in a hopeless conflict with reality.  Holding onto anger at someone causes our minds to endlessly rehash our interactions with them in the impossible hope that, by ruminating on what happened in the past, we can change it for the better.  We constantly relive the moment when we felt the other person disrespected us, with the goal—conscious or otherwise—of “fixing” the past.  When we see that the person actually gave us something to be grateful for, and that in some way we’re better off today because they came into our lives, we end our mental war with them and make peace with the past.

Based on the gratitude work I’ve done for myself and with others, I want to offer a few examples of how difficult people contribute to our personal growth in ways that make them worthy of our appreciation.  As these examples illustrate, nearly everyone we’ve come across has contributed, in at least a subtle way, to our growth.  We don’t have to approve of everything they did and said, but acknowledging at least some gift they gave us with their presence contributes much to our own inner peace.

1.  They help us reconcile with parts of ourselves we’ve avoided facing. Coming into conflict with people often forces us to draw on resources we’ve forgotten, and perhaps even refused to acknowledge, that we have.  In my old job as an attorney, for instance, I remember a few opposing lawyers whom I couldn’t stand dealing with.  I felt they were rude and overly aggressive, but my deeper problem with them was how often I had to say “no” when I interacted with them.

Before I got into law, I wasn’t very comfortable refusing people’s requests, and I felt tension in my body each time I needed to deny someone what they wanted—even if I was doing it as part of my job.  As I continued forcing myself to say “no,” however, I became increasingly comfortable with it.  I even came to realize there was a part of me that could say “no” without apology or explanation, and getting in touch with that part helped me to set healthy boundaries in my relationships.

2.  They remind us how much we’ve grown over time. Recalling a difficult interaction we had with someone a long time ago can remind us how far our development has come today.  For example, I used to harbor a grudge against a woman who ended her intimate relationship with me many years ago.  I believed she did it in a demeaning way and I felt angry at her.

Today, however, when I think about the conversation where she broke up with me, I actually feel peaceful and empowered.  I see how personally I took the things she said, and how painfully afraid I was of living without her, and I know I wouldn’t react in those ways to the breakup if it happened today.  I’m a stronger and more self-sufficient person now, and although I enjoy intimate relationships I don’t need them to feel like a complete human being.

The memory of my last conversation with her serves as a progress report showing how much I’ve matured since then.  I’m grateful to her because, if she’d never been in my life, I wouldn’t have such a clear indicator today of how far I’ve come.

3.  They help us admire ourselves for overcoming obstacles. Difficult people help  improve our ability to handle challenges, and when we deal with those challenges effectively we gain self-respect.  I had a professor in college, for instance, who was known to be particularly harsh in his grading.  I probably spent more nights studying into the early morning for his tests than I did for the other courses I took combined.  I defied my own expectations by acing the class.

Today, I fondly look back on this man’s course, and my dealings with him, as examples of how tough and persistent I can be.  I’m grateful to him for helping me  respect and admire myself.

4.  They help us make important life decisions. People who, in our view, “give us a hard time” often help motivate us to change our circumstances in positive and fulfilling ways.  For instance, I know a number of people who changed their careers, at least in part, because they got tired of dealing with what they saw as their overly demanding and critical superiors.  They might not have the career satisfaction they have today if their old bosses hadn’t been as tough to deal with.

5.  They help us see our opportunities to grow. Uncomfortable interactions with people can make us aware of places where we don’t fully love or accept ourselves, and where we could stand to develop more appreciation and compassion for who we are.  One example stands out from a job I had when I was just out of college.  A woman in the office, who seemed consistently stressed and angry, used to call me “what’s-your-name” when demanding I do things for her.  I’d feel very distressed when she called me that, and I’d experience a burning sensation in my chest and upper back.

A few years later, as I reflected on this memory, it occurred to me that I got so upset when she talked to me that way because I had such an aching need to be acknowledged by others.  I needed people to constantly tell me I was important and praise my accomplishments, and thus when this woman treated me like I was nobody I felt terribly anxious.

When I had this realization, I started taking up practices to dissolve this need—to develop a sense of wholeness even without constant acknowledgment from others.  I wouldn’t have the peace I have today if this woman—whose name I, ironically, don’t remember—hadn’t been there to show me where I didn’t fully accept myself and needed others’ approval to feel complete.  And I can genuinely say I’m thankful she came into my life.