Columnists

What Covid taught us about saying ‘No’

crowd
jenny

Summary

  • Covid smashed up most things, and we discovered that our lives did not collapse, that we found a way, that we are still standing.
  • Indeed, globally, employers are reporting record levels of resignations.
  • Here we stand, disrupted and broke, but perhaps we all discovered that the frightening paths weren’t as impossible as we thought and now the ‘safe’ way doesn’t look ‘safe’ at all anymore.

In modern culture, we have a whole genre that is called by many ‘psycho babble’. It spans self-help books telling you how to be a great success in life, or in love. It covers courses galore, and ‘retreats’, and group memberships, and holidays, dedicated to rebuilding yourself, your career or your relationship.

In particular, over several decades, it has built whole cadres of life coaches, counsellors, and therapists, such that, today, few professionals are without some support or another in addressing their blind spots, bad habits, and those world views that cause them to come unstuck.

Yet, in my own encounters with all these interfaces, there was one matter that kept getting raised that I have only recently come to understand. But now I have, it has seen me reappraise a lifetime of choices, behave differently — not through intent or decision, but just through perception — and changed my life at high speed.

For, in the great mound of jargon built up to achieve our psychological and emotional well-being (happiness), I kept being told to ‘set firm boundaries’, with no actual notion of what that meant.

Yet thanks to the way Covid made everything more extreme, I have finally grasped this boundaries thing. As it is, some people emerge into adulthood clear on ‘boundaries’ from the start and have way better lives as a result. But others, such as myself, accept poor situations so systemically that they spend their whole lives in poor situations.

So a boundary is what you will not tolerate and are not comfortable with: it’s your ‘No’ point.

Yet, after my marriage broke down and with two young children to feed and get through school, my boundaries became sublimated to the pure need to make money. So, I would stay with clients who commissioned swathes of work that they then felt paying for was some hefty favour.

I put up with clients who crunched back piecework and payment rates to levels that meant I was losing money on every single item. And I allowed nearly permanent overstepping of boundaries around respect.

To wit, I worked for years for one client, who would answer my call in a second in the periods he was putting extra work from me at short notice, but would never return a call in months when it was me trying to reach him.

Indeed, I allowed myself, repeatedly, to be sucked into three times the work with clients who just didn’t respond. For example, I have one who has failed to agree a paid scope of work for one-third of a contract since early June, despite more than 10 emails in detail, google docs, face-to-face meetings in Nairobi, and phone calls beyond count.

Finally, I counted the hours spent trying to get a response from that client and realised I had already worked three times the hours budgeted for in their original 12-week commission in February. So now, I am sending the last and final works to the client, and have started new accounts with teams that respond the same or next day, resolve all matters, and pay better.

And that is the discovery of boundaries. Somehow, if we allow ourselves to get into some mindset of scarcity, fearful somehow, even panicked, thinking if we don’t keep going in this awful situation our lives will collapse, all we do is keep ourselves endlessly in awful situations, putting ungrateful people above ourselves, taking abuse, and living every day with disrespect.

And that is where Covid has actually liberated us. Because it smashed up most things, and we discovered that our lives did not collapse, that we found a way, that we are still standing.

Indeed, globally, employers are reporting record levels of resignations. Here we stand, disrupted and broke, but perhaps we all discovered that the frightening paths weren’t as impossible as we thought and now the ‘safe’ way doesn’t look ‘safe’ at all any more, but like misery that has stopped, or that can be stopped.

For, in reality, saying ‘No’ to things we find deeply unpleasant does an amazing thing: it is a prerequisite to having lives that are not deeply unpleasant.