Writer Natalie Baird-Clarke explains that, even though Christians are terrible at saying "no", we need to learn to care for ourselves.


Source: Unsplash / Daniel Herron

According to Wikipedia’s top 100 most commonly used words in the English language, the word “no” comes in at number 56.  I’d say that makes it pretty common. That’s why it’s interesting to note that, for a lot of Christians, the word is a difficult one to say.

It wasn’t always this way of course. Toddlers, infamously, have no problems with saying no. In fact, they may say it over and over again, as they delight in realising that they are their own little person with their own thoughts and feelings! Checking boundaries allows them to start to navigate the world around them.  And importantly, it helps them learn how to set their own boundaries for when they’re older.

I was chatting to a friend recently who is overwhelmed with work; checking emails at weekends, doubting their abilities, and suffering from exhaustion and stress.They said: "More and more is being piled on my plate. But I just can’t say no." I had no answer. It was a hard sentence to hear because the sentiment was clear. They felt helpless.

It is common for people in therapy to trace their anxieties back to an inability to say no.

Unsurprisingly, it is common for people in therapy to trace their anxieties back to an inability to say no. So where does this stem from? And why, when we’ve practised saying no so diligently as a small child, do we struggle to do so as adults?

There can be a myriad of reasons, but most will stem from messages we heard as we were growing up; “Avoid conflict at all costs.” “Never be selfish.” “Don’t let people down.” “Show respect." “It’s important to please people.” Letting go of these automatic thoughts is not easy, especially when the Bible tells us: “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” “honour one another above yourselves,” and “whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”

But it is still possible to live by these values and be kind to yourself. We just need to pause before we grit our teeth and say: “Yes, of course I’ll do that!” The pause is all-important. It provides time and space to consider why we want to say yes. Is it because we feel guilty as a Christian? Because we’re worried about the response? Because we want to be liked? Once we know the answer, we can set the boundary.  A person who says: “I’m sorry, but I can’t,” is prioritising their own needs and respecting themselves, even at the risk of disappointing others. A person who responds with a "no" is taking care of themselves, so that when they are rested, they can take care of others. We can not pour from an empty cup, after all.

But how, when we’ve spent years saying yes, do we start to turn things around?

  • Be still, listen out for God and tune in to your intuition – you will know whether something is a yes or a no for you. Honour that inner voice.
  • Let the reactions of others go. Those who respect you will respect your decisions, and those who don’t – well, who cares what they think?
  • Note the benefits you’ll reap from saying no – more time, more energy, less stress, less overwhelm.
  • Rehearse in the mirror: “I can’t take that on,” “I have no capacity for that,” “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to help.”
  • Remember Jesus said: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Interestingly, the 10th most common word in the English language is "I". Prioritise you. The child in you knows how.