I just can’t say no!


We had a session on “saying no”, quite a while ago, but I was reminded of the theme after talking to a friend yesterday evening. After a particularly successful local event, I mentioned to her how great she was for being involved in so much, “good stuff”. Her response was “I’m not great, I just can’t say no.”

I’m sure lots of us will relate to that. We want to help, we want to contribute, be it to important projects at work or activities relating to our children’s school or even just helping out friends or relatives. When talking this through in our group, there appeared to be 4 distinct groups. Firstly, those who found it fairly easy to say no to unwanted demands on their time and were able to only focus on their chosen activities, secondly, those who could say no, but then felt guilty and out of the loop, thirdly those who by nature were fairly outgoing and enjoyed getting involved with things but ended up taking on so much that they were exhausted and lastly those who felt they should say yes and found saying no almost painfully difficult for fear of offending or appearing unhelpful.

During the session, we watched a Nooma dvd that was based on this theme. The narrator Rob Bell told a story about how one day, his family was on the beach and as they all looked out to sea they saw a giant starfish, floating on the surface of the water. Rob and his wife urged their son to go into the water to catch the starfish, so he ran into the water and started wading out to it. Halfway there, he turned back, giving up, so they all shouted, “Go back, keep going, you can do it!”, so he did and this time got closer to the starfish but again turned back and started walking to the shore, so they shouted again “Go back, what are you doing? Just go and catch that starfish – it’s yours!” So he started off again and again turned back. By this time they were a little frustrated and asked a little more emphatically, “What’s the problem? That’s your starfish, get it, why won’t you get it?!” and he replied, ” I can’t, my hands are full of shells.”

We then took time to think about what our “shells” were, the things that were stopping us from catching our starfish, stopping us from doing the things we’re passionate about doing and doing well. It may sound a bit cheesy but I found this really useful. In the first instant it made me consider whether I even had a “starfish”, a vision or a purpose and although at that moment couldn’t think what that could be, it started off a train of thought that allowed me to look at what I could do wholeheartedly and really enjoy.


1) Look at all your family’s activities and decide which ones are worth doing and which ones have just become unpleasant and stressful.

2) Decide which activities you do that are worth doing but stressful because you are doing too many other superfluous activities and then if possible put aside the superfluous ones.

3) Do an audit of all your children’s clubs, do they need or want to go to them all? Check that they aren’t overclubbed and overtired.

4) Try and find a moment to think of your talents or gifts. Are they being used? Think about how you could  use them purposefully.

We all sometimes just plod through life, surviving day to day in a haze of activity, but perhaps we should start to imagine that we can achieve so much more, simply by doing less.

One response »

  1. I loved the shells idea too and yes, to say no to the other stuff, it helps to know what your starfish is in the first place.

    It really resonated with me that often the good, not the bad, is the enemy of the great.

    I fall into the third category of people – I think lots of things are a good idea and genuinely want to get involved but then just don’t have the time or energy to follow things through. I guess I could be called a starter-dumper (I prefer ‘Pioneer’ or ‘Visionary’ but I can hear some snorting behind me as I write this {note to self, get some private ‘me’ space})

    Some of you at headspace have asked for the details of some of the books that have been recommended by various people. I can’t recommend ‘Boundaries’ highly enough (strapline ‘When to Say Yes, When to Say No, To Take Control of Your Life’) (link below). It contains loads of great practical advice and is written by a couple of psychologists. A lot of principles are dervied from the book of Proverbs which I happen to think says a lot of good stuff about living in general.


    How do we go about working out what our starfish really are?

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