Saying No When You Really, Really, Really Want to Say Yes

Earlier this year, I got invited to go to Australia to do some creative work, work that has nothing to do with sex⁠ education, and which I rarely get the chance to do any more. Before then, another university in Australia had pitched getting me out⁠ there to talk about the work I do in sex education. I don't travel well these days, but I still enjoy seeing other places, and have never been able to go to Australia before. What's more, one of the folks doing the inviting said they'd even take me to where they filmed Where the Wild Things Are. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have been a Max fangirl my whole life, so the idea of being able to run around where they did in the film version was a major perk.

I started looking at my schedule. My schedule which was, as it turns out, was already booked to the point beyond what I was already comfortable with and felt capable of. Honoring all of my existing commitments well was going to be challenging as it was, not to mention keeping myself from getting burnt out by all of them. Then I started looking at other things, like the budget for Scarleteen this year (which is looking grim) which impacts how much more I can do besides the work here. That didn't look promising, either. Sigh. I really, really really wanted to go. I really wanted to say yes.

But I realized there was just no way I could say yes to this now. I wanted to so badly, and it could have so much to offer me, but saying yes would also mean a host of not-so-great things, like wearing my body down into illness, winding up really behind on things I was already behind on, probably being more broke than I already am, giving less energy and focus to those I'd already made commitments to, not seeing my partner⁠ and my pug for a solid month, which would suck for all of us emotionally, but also ask a lot of my partner in terms of managing things here at home.

Long story short, it was clear, in evaluating this carefully and honestly, that choosing to say yes was not at all likely to result in all the good stuff I'd hope for in saying yes, and was also likely to deliver a lot of bummers that either wouldn't happen at all, or would be way more manageable, if I declined instead.

I had to say no when I wanted to say yes. Which always sucks, in the biggest way, especially when you really want to say yes, and really want to do the thing you have to take a pass on.

This is something that comes up a lot at Scarleteen, which is unsurprising since it tends to come up often in anyone's life. We hear about this from young people with sexual⁠ situations like:

  • A potential partner says they're ready for sex, and the other person feels very ready and want to have sex with them, but knows that partner is clearly not ready themselves, or has a big conflict or issue that's going to create real problems for them (maybe even for both people), and it would probably not be right for them at all.
  • One person really wants a serious, exclusive⁠ relationship⁠ that includes sex, and the person they want it with only wants a more breezy, non-exclusive⁠ sexual relationship. The person who wants the more serious relationship also feels sexual desires, so really wants to be sexual with them, but knows saying yes without the kind of relationship they need to feel safe and free in exploring sex it would probably only result in heartbreak for them and not feel good at all after the fact. Or, it's the other way around: one person wants an only-about-sex relationship or interaction with someone who they know is saying okay to that or will, but knows that's not really the relationship context they want. That first person could get what they want in so many ways, but know the other isn't likely at all to get what they want or need.
  • Someone has known they're gay⁠ or lesbian⁠ for an age, but as is the case for a lot of LGBTQ⁠ folks, their dating pool has been painstakingly small, and they've never had the opportunity to be date or be sexual with anyone at all. And then an opportunity presents itself, where someone queer⁠ is interested in them, and wants to date or be sexual with them, but they really aren't feeling it for that person specifically. At the same time, it's an opportunity -- at long last! -- to actually try on dating or sex, just to see what it's like, but they know that they're just not likely to have or develop the kind of feelings or desires to really make it work for the other person, or not hurt them, or even to have it ultimately be what they want.
  • Somebody has a major jones for somebody else. In a huge way. And that person shares those feelings, and is trying to pursue a relationship or sexual interaction with them. Yay! Or not: because one of those people is already in an exclusive relationship with someone else, someone else who happens to even be a very good friend of the haver-of-jones.
  • A person is super-duper into someone else, and they have an awesome relationship they both really enjoy. They both want it to become sexual. The big trouble is that both of their families and seriously unsupportive of their relationship and even more unsupportive of them engaging in any kind of sex. It's totally possible they could still engage in sex and not get caught, but it's just as likely someone is going to find out and it's going to turn what would otherwise probably be a really good thing into a major nightmare with endless ugly fallout, maybe even resulting in not being allowed to see each other at all anymore.

These are just a few examples of the ways this can come up around sex and sexual (or potentially sexual) relationships. You can probably think of some more. But the theme is that one or more people really wants to say yes, but, using their best judgment, and really supporting the best outcomes, should probably say no, at least for now.

So often, when people talk about yes or no, especially with sex, it's assumed that a no is something someone will only say when they don't want to say yes. While that's certainly true sometimes, it's not always true: sometimes we say no (or maybe, not now, not yet, or yes, but only when ) when we want to say yes. Sometimes we say no when we really, really want to say yes and it freaking kills us to have to say no. A lot of the time, that spot can be tougher to be in, that no harder to say, than when we want to say no when we feel all or mostly-no, and little to no yes at all.

It sucks to turn down an opportunity we truly want. It's also tough when others are involved because they often feel bummed out, too. Worse still, sometimes the other person knows that we want to say yes, uses that to try and sway us from our better decision. It's all too easy to be persuaded to say yes when that is what we'd rather say.

A few things to keep in mind that can help you deal:

One-time-only isn't always the given it feels like. It's easy to get stars in our eyes and go with the dramatic feeling that a wanted opportunity will only come along once, so if we don't take it right then and there, we'll neverevernever get it again. Not only is that often untrue, but usually when we want something, we also want it to go a certain way. For instance, if we want to start a sexual relationship with someone, we probably don't want the other person to get hurt: we want it to feel good for everyone. If we want to be out for a partner (and ourselves), we probably don't want that to be something which mostly brings us harassment and no support or acceptance.

Most of the time, the good stuff will keep until it can really be good stuff, or will come back around again, and we can have a chance to say yes when the situation or timing is much, much better. And perhaps more to the point, if a given situation isn't really the right one for us or others, or the timing is off, we will often go for something or say yes to something that can seem like the door to what we really want, only to discover that the specific conditions turn it into something that wasn't at all what we wanted.

You can accentuate the positives, including in the negatives. By all means, when saying no, we can talk about the reasons we want to say yes, like that. Even around your no, and the reasons for it, you can come at it from a positive place. What are the other good things you want for you or the other person or people involved that you or they just couldn't have right now if you did say yes? For instance, part of what you want and don't think you can have yet is all of you feeling good emotionally about sex AFTER sex, not just during. You want an experience to be as beneficial for them as you think it will be for you, or vice-versa. If you say no for now, and say yes later only if the situation has changed so those mutally-good outcomes are a lot more likely, saying no now isn't a bad thing, but a good thing that can make bad things less likely and good things more so.

In other words, not only can a no when yes is wanted, all around, be a better thing than it appears, talking about the things or feelings we already have to be at a yes, and then the things that our no is about can help us and others to identify what we really need to get to that yes and have it be as great as we want it to be.

Remember that you can also always leave the door open if you want. Now, the other person may or may not take you up on it later, because that's just how life goes: our timing, and everyone else's is often off. But they just as well might.

No to something sexual or relational is sometimes a "No, not now," or "No, not in this particular situation." If you know what you'd need to feel best about saying yes, you can put that out there, as a "If and when we have X," or "If there's ever a time when you want Y, like I do," followed by a "give me a call," or what have you. Most people, most of the time, have conditions around sex and relationships, they don't just say yes to everyone or every possibility. Having limits or conditions not only is totally okay (even if they feel sucky sometimes), it's healthy. Someone without any limits or any boundaries is usually someone who isn't in a sound space to be intimate with anyone, and if often someone who can get really hurt or deeply hurt others.

If the other person is a heel about your no, hold your line, get out of their way if needed, then give yourself a pat on the back for dodging a bullet. If and when another person won't accept our no, because they know we want to say yes or for some other reason, and they try and talk us out of nixing, that's usually one of those moments where we can know exactly how much of a bullet we dodged when we did say no. In other words, when that happens, it's usually proof that saying no was a really smart choice, because they're showing us things like a lack of respect for our own wants and needs, an inability to consider things that have to be about more than them without only considering what they want or could get, a lack of emotional maturity or patience, and sometimes even a cue that they might not be safe or our relationship may be unhealthy or abusive.

For example, let's say that instead of being as gracious and understanding as he was, the person who offered to bring me to Australia had said, "I KNOW you want to go, Heather, even though you're saying this won't work for you. Just say yes. You know you really want to," or "But this is really important to ME, so just do it, okay?" or "If you don't say yes now, even if I want to or can, I will never, ever invite you again because I don't like that you said no to me."

What does that show me? For starters, that I could probably expect those exact same kinds of dynamics if I took the trip, which would have possibly made parts of it, or all of it, a nightmare. That that person might not even be safe for me to be around, for that matter, since they aren't doing a very good job of seeing me as a separate person, with separate issues, wants and needs from theirs. Also? Flatly, they'd be showing me they're a bit (or more than a bit) of an asshole.

Of course, that doesn't mean that dealing with that kind of dynamic is easy or fun. If and when something like that is going on, the best you can do is express and hold your line; be thoughtful and kind, but clear, with the other person about it. You can even offer to talk with them about their own hard feelings, making clear that their feelings of disappointment are okay, but trying to get you to change your mind isn't. Then you make space for yourself as needed. They might need it too, so they can process their own feelings.

If they keep pushing, pressuring or otherwise trying to get you to give them a different answer even when you do all of that, then the next step is to just get gone, even if it's hard and that's not something you want, either. Whether it goes that way, or the other person chills out and starts acting with more maturity and consideration, don't forget to give yourself credit for a good choice, even if getting it out there and respected, or holding it, was challenging or rough.

These kinds of calls are a sign that we have or are developing emotional maturity and sound decision-making; that we're getting skills, or already have them, when it comes to doing a good job taking care of ourselves and others well. All of those things are open doors to the best stuff in life.

Making these kinds of choices thoughtfully and where we're looking at the big picture, rather than just leaping at any and every opportunity we want is part growing up and developing emotional and interpersonal maturity. It's also a huge part of self-care, and you probably already know that if we can't care well for ourselves, we probably can't care well for others or be cared FOR well by others, either. While at the time, saying no when we want to say yes can feel crappy, what usually happens is that very shortly afterwards, we and others will instead feel really good: way better than we'd have felt if we made a poor or hasty choice. Feeling disappointed about nixing an opportunity we wanted blows, as can dealing with someone else's disappointment, but most of the time, feelings of disappointment don't stick around forever: they usually pass and are often eclipsed by better feelings when we're making our best choices.

When we're younger, it can be tough to visualize or imagine how very long life often is, and that includes how long we have to live with our good decisions and our poor ones. Sitting with a poor choice for a long time really blows, especially if that choice creates tough outcomes that extend how long we have to live with that choice. Sitting with a good choice usually gives us lasting good feelings, all the more so if and when -- as often happens -- making that better choice opened us up to more of what we or others really wanted, or to getting what we really wanted, just a little later on.

If you need a little extra coaching with this, you can look no further than our dear, wise friend Max, who shows us how it's done.

But the wild things cried, "Oh please don’t go - we’ll eat you up - we love you so!"
And Max said, "No."
The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth
and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws
but Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye
and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day
and into the night of his very own room, where he found his supper waiting for him
and it was still hot.

P.S. From the looks of things, it seems like I'll be able to go to Australia next year, instead, when this would be way better for me, and be something I could plan with more advance to assure it went better. See how this can work? :)