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Misery Loves Expectations

Irritated with your husband (or your wife)?

You probably expect too much.

I find it ironic that the month after Valentine’s Day tends to be the busiest time of the year for divorce lawyers (or so they say). Seems that many people are not feeling as much love and romance as Hallmark would hope.

I have a theory about this.

If I asked my grandmother if her late husband was her best friend, her provider, her lover, and her partner in parenting and life—her go-to guy for emotional fulfillment, practical help, AND the center of her social universe—she would have laughed uproariously.

She did love her hubby until the day he died and she missed him so much she wept when she would talk about him more than 30 years after his death. But my Opa wasn’t her best friend (her girlfriend Beulah was). She didn’t rely on him for help raising the kids or with the housework (times have changed!), nor did she expect him to understand her feelings. She relied on herself for happiness and fulfillment—and truthfully, she didn’t have high expectations there, either.

But she’d tell you she had a wonderful marriage. When I asked her if she had had a happy life (she lived to be 104 years old), she giggled at the absurdity of the question. Clearly she did.

And yet, like most of my peers, I would not sign up for her life—or, in particular, her marriage. Today, we expect our spouses to be our partners in just about every realm. We expect them to be our co-parents, our household running mates, and to help provide for our family financially. We’d think there was something wrong if they didn’t consider us their soul mate, their go-to buddy, and their lover.

Our expectations hugely influence our perceptions, and therefore our decisions, our experiences, our judgments, and ultimately, how we feel. Click To Tweet

Like individuals, couples are increasingly isolated from the outside sources of support that previous generations had, and so our partners have become our primary sources of emotional (and for some, spiritual) fulfillment. When we aren’t happy, it is easy—and quite common—for our generation to blame our spouse for it.

There is an expectations paradox here: The demands put on our relationships have become so great—and our expectations of them have gotten so high—that we are more likely to be disappointed when we don’t get what we want from our partners than we are to feel grateful when we do.

My grandmother expected very little from her husband—I imagine only that he provide her with financial stability, and that he be faithful to her. My grandfather delivered on these things, and as an added bonus, shared with her a love of dancing, a social life full of mutual friends and dinner parties, and a muted joy in raising children and grandchildren.

My grandmother was content not so much because of what she had in her husband, but because of what she lacked in her expectations. This is both ironic and instructive for our generation.

Consider the study where Duke professor Dan Ariely, author of the book Predictably Irrational, had research subjects try two different types of beer. One was Budweiser; the other was Budweiser with balsamic vinegar added to it.

The majority of subjects vastly preferred the Bud and vinegar concoction—when they weren’t told what it was. When they were informed before they tasted it, they hated it.

Ariely’s conclusion is that when people believe that something might be distasteful, they’ll experience it negatively, even if they would have liked it otherwise. The reverse is also true.

In other words: Our expectations hugely influence our perceptions, and therefore our decisions, our experiences, our judgments, and ultimately, how we feel.

But the idea that we should just lower our expectations of our spouses and call it a day is inherently unfulfilling. Seriously: Is the answer really to just lower the bar?

I can’t think of anyone for whom this would work. We can’t just drop our beliefs–especially our long-held romantic notions about who are partners should be to us–without replacing them with new beliefs and values that feel as true or truer to us.

So what do we do? How much can we really expect of our spouses and still be happy?  If expectations create relationship-killers, like nagging, contempt, and criticism, how can we respond constructively when our expectations aren’t met?

I’ve spent years combing the research for answers to these questions. I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned in my next live call on Friday, March 16. We’ll be digging deeper into the misery of high expectations, and more specifically what to do when our partners don’t measure up.

Join now and you can listen in to our March 2nd recording and get instant access to all of my Love & Marriage online resources. For a limited time, you can join us  for 50% off — only $10! Use the code BLOG10Learn more or enroll now.

How to Know if You’ve Married the Wrong Person

When my first marriage failed, I wanted desperately to fall in love and start again. I wanted to show my princess-obsessed little girls that lasting love was possible; that their romantic dreams could come true. That my romantic dreams could come true.

Four years after we met, we married. It was something I had to talk Mark into; going through a divorce is hard, and neither of us were eager to go through that again. But I think I had a deeper agenda, one I couldn’t see then. I think I wanted to marry Mark in part because I didn’t want to raise my kids alone. It was so much more fun to have an adult to talk to at night. I also married Mark—again, unconsciously—in an attempt to preserve those feelings of being adored which are the hallmark of the early stage of almost every relationship. Nothing could be more romantic than a wedding and a honeymoon; nothing, in theory, could make our relationship more permanent than marriage.When I met Mark, the man who is now my second husband, I was optimistic. He met my propensity for anxiety with a proclivity for deep calm. He told me that he wanted to dedicate the second half of his life to romance. I was sold. Even better, no one was a bigger champion of me (or my work) than him. In that first year together, he gushed over me in a way that only my grandmother had done before. It felt great.

This is obviously faulty logic. There was, of course, no actual connection between the feelings I wanted to resurrect and the institution of marriage. Indeed, as Alain de Botton has so wisely written, we attempt to use marriage to “make nice feelings permanent.” He continues:

Marriage tends decisively to move us onto another, very different and more administrative plane, which perhaps unfolds in a suburban house, with a long commute and maddening children who kill the passion from which they emerged. The only ingredient in common is the partner. And that might have been the wrong ingredient to bottle.

Marriage did move us onto a decisively different plane, complete with a move to the suburbs and the ensuing long commute. Three of our teenagers decided to live full-time with us (the fourth goes to boarding school). This was a departure from the week-on, week-off custody arrangements we were used to. Mark and I lost all the alone-time we had as a couple, but our family life blossomed. I thrived in a house full of teenagers.

Without the time to ourselves we were used to—and with some significant family stressors hammering away at us—Mark and I started operating a little more like middle-aged business partners than twenty-somethings in love. It became unclear to me how people with teenagers underfoot could ever have sex without the constant (and libido-killing) threat of interruption. An unending family feud about how to load our new dishwasher developed.

Recently, in the midst of the still-ongoing dishwasher feud, dozens of text messages deep into an argument about why it is idiotic/wasteful to rinse dishes before loading them into the dishwasher, I realized: Once again, I have married the wrong person.

Or had I?

Stop the world

I know I’m not alone with my questions.

Do you, too, sometimes have a sinking feeling that you did not marry “the one”? Perhaps you have married a person with whom the sex is not always frequent, passionate, and surprising. Perhaps your spouse’s blind adoration seems to be fading? Do the two of you sometimes feel contempt or defensiveness in the face of each other’s “helpful” feedback? If that sounds familiar, you have likely married the wrong person.

That’s okay. Here’s what I didn’t understand until recently: We all marry the wrong person. Or, rather, we marry people for reasons that don’t really pan out over the long haul.

According to the brilliant de Botton, we mustn’t abandon our flawed spouses simply because our marriages aren’t living up to childhood daydreams. Instead, we need to jettison “the Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.”

It’s no small feat for me to let go of this cultural ideal. For many decades, it has housed my most cherished hopes and dreams. In middle school, I started fantasizing about having a man to “stop the world and melt with,” thanks to Modern English, and despite no lasting evidence that such a person existed, I have never really stopped awaiting his arrival.

It’s not that I haven’t been in love: I have. I am in love with my husband now. But every time I wish he were different—every time I wish he would do, say, or be something that he isn’t—it’s as though I’m expecting him to be someone else. It’s as though Prince Charming could be just around the bend, if only…

It’s this gap between expectation and reality that generates all of life’s disappointments. We human beings have a wonderful capacity to create rich fantasies. But when we expect our reality to match a fantasy and life doesn’t deliver what we imagined it would, it’s hard to feel anything other than cheated.

The truth is not very appealing: There is no prince in shining armor coming to save me from my loneliness and anxiety, to rescue me from my feelings of inadequacy. It begs hard questions: Can I consistently feel grateful for what I do have, rather than disappointed in what I don’t? Can I let go of my attachment to a cultural idea that is, quite literally, a fairy tale?

In truth, I don’t really want to let go of my romantic fantasies. I like them. They are like the promise of an amazing meal or unforgettable vacation. And every once in a while, I do, in fact get one of those things.

Choosing imperfection

As if he knew that I’ve been thinking about all this, the other day in the car Mark asked me if I’d marry him again, knowing what I know now. Actually, he didn’t ask so much as he asserted, with good humor, that he knew I wouldn’t marry him again.

“You’d marry someone more spiritual,” he declared. “And more emotionally expressive. Someone younger.”

“I would choose you,” I insisted, and not just because I don’t like to be told what I do and don’t like.

In my heart I knew it was true: I would marry him again and again, even now that I know that marriage is not necessarily easier or more pleasant than being alone, even accepting that marriage does not have any power to transport us back into a state of romantic bliss.

I know now that no actual human being can ever measure up to the romantic fantasy of a soulmate. Mark might be imperfect (and imperfect-for-me), but I am also highly imperfect and, as such, imperfect for him. It’s such a fair match.

It’s clear that all along I’ve been asking the wrong question. “Are you the right person for me?” leads only to stress and judgment and suffering.

Determining the rightness of a match between ourselves and another is a fundamentally flawed enterprise, because nothing outside of ourselves—nothing we can buy, achieve, and certainly no other person—can fix our brokenness, can bring us the lasting joy that we crave.

A more empowering—and more deeply romantic—question is: Am I the right person for you?

A more constructive (and potentially satisfying) proposition is to ask: Can I accommodate your imperfections with humor and grace?

Can I tolerate your inability to read my mind and make everything all-better?

Can I negotiate our disagreements with love and intelligence? Without losing myself to fear and emotion?

Am I willing to do the introspective work required of marriage? Can I muster the self-awareness needed to keep from driving you away?

Do I think I am brave enough to continue loving you, despite your flaws, and, more importantly, despite mine?

I do.

Why My Husband Infuriates Me

The other night, I did something that I am not proud of.

We have four teenagers, so dinnertime is never dull, but this particular evening it was full chaos. One of our kids had not eaten much. My husband, Mark, really wanted one of our kids to eat more, and so he offered a bribe/threat: You can’t go hang out with your friends until you finish everything on your plate.

A power struggle unfolded, complete with sibling cheering sections. I tried to shut it all down using dramatic non-verbal cues. This was not what we agreed to do when a kid doesn’t eat well, I screamed silently with my supercharged glares.

I was not successful. The picky eater ate what was required in order to go hang out in the neighborhood.

Although I was obviously right (chuckle) in my frustration–because bribing kids can work in the short run, but research clearly demonstrates that it backfires in the long run–this post is not about how right I was. It’s about how I mishandled this situation because I didn’t see what it was really about.

The next night, I intended to calmly raise the issue so that we could prevent similar dinnertime spectacles in the future. I knew that I couldn’t make accusations or do anything that might make Mark defensive, because people don’t learn well when they are being criticized.

Let the record show that I was not even remotely uncritical.

I opened with something like “How could you have been so stupid?”

And then I started to rant.

“Haven’t we talked about that situation a million times? We have a freaking PLAN for this!! We’ve AGREED what we will do about picky eating!! Why can’t you follow through with the plan? Why can’t you understand how important it is to be consistent?” He responded calmly. I rolled my eyes with contempt and superiority.

I was such. an. ass.

I do not know of any parent, myself included, who has not at some point threatened, bribed, or otherwise manipulated a child into doing what they wanted the kid to do. I actually do possess a huge capacity to empathize with my husband’s intentions and behavior, but it was a capacity I failed entirely to draw on.

Why? Why was this so emotional for me? Why was I so critical and punishing?

Because I was projecting.

We project, psychologically speaking, when we unconsciously and unknowingly attribute our judgments about ourselves to other people.

See, the thing that drives me most crazy about myself is that I often make big elaborate behavioral plans for myself and then I don’t follow through on them. For example, I’ve recently stopped meditating (again) after making a plan to meditate more. The perfectionist in me has been a mess of guilt and anxiety over this, something I didn’t consciously realize until I found myself dressing Mark down for not following through on our picky eater protocol.

We humans have blind spots. It is often hard for us to see our own failings, but it can be very easy for us to see what’s wrong with other people. The people around us, particularly our spouses, are like mirrors. We see clearly what we don’t like, but we get it backwards.

It’s not them, it’s us.

Martha Beck cleverly calls this charming human propensity “You spot it, you got it.”

Psychological projection (in its many forms) is a defense mechanism first conceptualized by Sigmund Freud. His daughter, Anna Freud, later developed the theory. The Freuds posited that we often deal with the thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings that are hard for us to accept in ourselves by attributing them to someone else.

Although many Freudian theories have not stood the test of time, projection is still considered a textbook human behavior.[i] I see projection at work all around me, in myself, in my friends and children, and in my clients.

That doesn’t mean that we are always projecting when we see other people’s flaws, or when we see the ways that others can learn and improve. But when we feel particularly emotional about a situation? When we feel hooked and irrational or harshly judgmental about someone else’s shortcomings, rather than empathetic or compassionate? We are probably projecting.

Projection is an undeniable human tendency, and I think it is pretty wonderful, actually, because it allows us to see ourselves more clearly, to better understand what is causing us anxiety and stress.

The greatest thing about projection, to me, is that it comes with a set of instructions for our own growth and happiness. We’ll usually do well to do whatever it is we wish other people would do (or stop doing).

Projection is pretty wonderful because it allows us to see ourselves more clearly. Click To Tweet

In other words, when we notice that we are projecting, we have the opportunity to take our own advice.

For example, I wanted Mark to stop asking me to make parenting plans that he couldn’t follow through on. Instead, I wanted him to accept easier, good-enough, plans. So the opportunity for me (to take my own advice) was to accept an easier, good-enough plan for meditation.

In this instance, the solution was not to try to be more perfect.  The follow-my-own-advice solution that emerged from my projection was to stop making plans that weren’t realistic given the lovely, messy world—life with my four teenagers and a career that has me traversing time zones—that I live in. My fight with Mark showed me that I don’t always have to model the very best practices; it’s good enough to be strategic, realistic, and skillful.

What are your projections telling you? What advice for others would you do well to take yourself?

Want to learn more about how projection can help us grow? We hope you’ll join our Brave Over Perfect Group Coaching community. Our March theme is all about taking our romantic relationships to the next level. It’s only $20 to join us! Get instant access to three live coaching calls (and call recordings), a thriving online community, and online resources. Learn more or enroll now.

[i] Wade, Tavris “Psychology,” Sixth Edition, Prentice Hall, 2000.

How to Have a Good Valentine's Day

How to Create More Loving Relationships

Research shows that our feelings of being in love come from what we do and how we behave around our beloveds — more than from an unseen magical connection with another person. Here are 3 research-based things you can do that can make you feel more in love. And, here is the link to the list of questions I mention in the second tip. Have fun!

If you like this video, I hope you’ll join our Brave Over Perfect coaching group! Our March theme is all about love and marriage, and it’s only $10 per month to join us for three coaching calls. Get instant access to live calls (and recordings), a thriving online community, and online resources. Learn more or enroll now.

It's not to late to join our Brave Over Perfect coaching group! Our next live call is on January 10th. That gives you plenty of time to listen to the call recording where I laid the foundation for setting goals and thinking about changes you’d like to make in 2018. Our Brave Over Perfect coaching group is a highly effective and extremely inexpensive alternative to life coaching and, for some people, therapy. If you’re interested in personal growth, this is less a lot less work than reading a book (and at only $20 for three calls, it’s totally affordable). Learn more or Register now.

Find more joy and fulfillment this year

It’s not to late to join our Brave Over Perfect coaching group! Our next live call is on January 10th. That gives you plenty of time to listen to the call recording where I laid the foundation for setting goals and thinking about changes you’d like to make in 2018.

Our Brave Over Perfect coaching group is a highly effective and extremely inexpensive alternative to life coaching and, for some people, therapy. If you’re interested in personal growth, this is less a lot less work than reading a book (and at only $20 for three calls, it’s totally affordable). Learn more or Register now.

Materialism

Making the Holidays More Meaningful – and Less Materialistic

Last year about this time, an Instagram photo showing a mountain of shiny wrapped presents – nearly as large as the seven-foot Christmas tree behind it – went viral. I love Hanukkah and Christmas (we celebrate both in our family); at the same time, all the gift buying and present bragging at this time of year is cause for worry.

Kids who grow up to pursue wealth and material possessions tend to be less satisfied with their lives. They’re not as happy, and they experience fewer positive emotions each day. Research finds materialism in students is also associated with lower-quality relationships and feeling less connected to other people.

There are two things that tend to influence how materialistic kids are.

The first is obvious: Consciously or not, we adults socialize kids to be materialistic. When parents – as well as peers and celebrities – model materialism, kids care more about wealth and luxury. So when parents are materialistic, kids are likely to follow suit. Same thing with advertising: The more exposure kids get to advertising, the more likely they are to be materialistic.

Materialism is worth combating, especially over the holidays. Click To Tweet

The less obvious factor behind materialism has to do with the degree to which our needs are being fulfilled. When people feel insecure or unfulfilled – because of poverty or because a basic psychological need like safety, competence, connectedness or autonomy isn’t being met – they often to try to quell their insecurity by striving for wealth and a lot of fancy stuff. Because of this, relatively poor teenagers ironically tend to be more materialistic than wealthy ones. And less nurturing and more emotionally cold mothers tend to have more materialistic children.

So materialism and the behaviors that go with it – desiring and buying brand name clothes and luxury items – can be symptoms of insecurity and a coping strategy used to alleviate feelings of self-doubt or bolster a poor self-image. But if what kids are really seeking is greater happiness and fulfillment, materialism is a terrible coping method. At best, it will only provide short-term relief; in the long-run it is likely to actually deepen feelings of insecurity.

 

Materialism is worth combating, especially over the holidays when it seems to reach a fever pitch in our culture.

I think the best way to combat materialism over the holidays is to prioritize connection with friends and family and neighbors. My teens would rather be with their friends than anyone else most of the time, but this is the time of the year when we insist on family first.

For example, the weekend before Christmas, my cousins always fly in from Massachusetts and Washington and Florida for a big extended family Christmas party, complete with a funny “Yankee Swap” (aka “white elephant” gift exchange). My mom makes spritz cookies with the kids, a tradition started in Germany with her mother. We light the candles of the menorah and say prayers each night during Hanukkah, something my husband’s Jewish family has been teaching us.

All of this is about renewing our sense that we are a part of something larger than ourselves. Let me not mince words here: This sense that we are connected and part of a larger whole is the single strongest predictor of happiness that we have. It is true that the holidays have become depressingly commercial in our culture, with a massive focus on what each individual will get and what kids want in terms of material gifts.

But we can choose to focus on relationships instead of individual gift lists this holiday season. Not surprisingly, people who focus on family or religion during the holidays report higher levels of happiness than those who don’t.


Originally posted on US News & World Report, December 2017


Do you need support finding more meaning in your life? I hope you’ll consider joining our Brave Over Perfect coaching group.  Learn more or enroll now. Cheers to making 2018 your happiest year yet!

How to be a kid again

How To Be a Kid Again

Recently, some of my friends with older children were lamenting that the days of trick-or-treating are over for them. But why? Does it have to end when you turn a certain age? My friend Deb doesn’t think so. Last year, she put on a wolf mask and a fake fur coat and went out on Halloween. “When you’re 5’2,” she told me, “you can trick-or-treat forever.”

I love Halloween. But my appreciation for it really has nothing to do with candy. I like the childlike invitation to dress up. I love the idea that you can throw on a wig or a beret and a mustache and Voila! You are instantly anyone or any thing you want to be. There’s the imagination phase, where you spend time wondering what you want to become, and then there’s the creation phase, the scramble to pull the pieces together and get up the courage to go out in public as, say, a BLT sandwich. I once dressed up as a BLT. Another time, I painted cardboard until I was a bagel, and then I cut foam into a misshapen circle to be a “Queen” Bolete mushroom. Those were in the category of things I liked to eat. Other years I went as Katy Perry or Grover, the blue muppet from Sesame Street. They were in the category of someones I wanted to be. Dressing up is about as creative as it gets; you make something out of nothing. Even if your costume comes in a plastic bag from Amazon.com, it’s still magical if you own the character you’ve decided to become. Take my friend’s three-year-old son Jaxson, who wasn’t just Tigger, but T-I-Double G-Errrrr.

This year, Halloween had a certain poignancy. I was not at home and I missed my kids, but I also missed all the children in the neighborhood, dressed up and believing they were animals or superheroes or superstars. Then there was the heartbreak of seeing the children at Mass General hospital. Every morning when I show up for my radiation treatments, there are always kids in the waiting room. They are doing chemotherapy and radiation at the same time, so most have lost all of their hair and are doing several energy-sucking, nausea-inducing sessions a day. I have come to know a few of them: two-year old Clayton, five-year old Aïsha, and three-year old Felicia, or Feliz (not their real names). These children go joyfully into the treatment room and come skipping back out. They don’t weigh down their experience with worry and premature grief. The other day, Aïsha found a toy xylophone, banged on its bright tin keys and belted out for all of us in the waiting room, “Everybody, yeah, eve-rrry-body is IMPORTANT!”

But it was Feliz who told me that the light around our radiation machine can change colors. I just assumed, in my grown-up way, that it was always blue. But noooo…this thing has a remote control and there are multiple shades of neon. It even has a “Disco Mode” where the blue light switches to pink to yellow to green. When I found that out, I had an idea.

On Halloween morning, Feliz came running over to me in her bright superhero costume, pulled out her pacifier, and said with a big smile, “I’m Supergirl!”

“Yes you are!” I responded and we flexed muscles for a while.

Then she asked, “What are you?”

“I’m a Disco Queen,” I said matter-of-factly, in my blonde afro wig and disco-ball earrings.

“Oh,” she said, and popped her pacifier back in her mouth before flying away. I turned to her mother and said, “Feliz is teaching me how to bring joy to my radiation treatments.” “All of us, ” she responded, “She teaches all of us so much.” 

Inspired, I felt lighter going into my treatment. Maybe I could even have some fun. I seized the remote control and put the lights on “Disco Mode” then I asked the nurses to change the Pandora Radio station to ABBA and I danced. Not for very long, and not very well, but still, I was dancing in the radiation room! The nurses laughed and said, “You’re being such a kid!”

“Thank you!” I said.

And thank you Feliz, Aïsha, and Clayton for teaching me how to embrace the joy that is in every situation, no matter where I am and what I am doing.

Happy Halloween everyone!

** Release your inner kid again and find JOY! Join our new Brave Over Perfect coaching group; our next one begins Nov. 1st. It’s only $20 for 3 calls, plus an online classroom full of resources, and access to an online community of smart people with solutions. Learn more here: Brave Over Perfect Coaching.
*****

The Secret to Happiness Webinar

What is the Secret to Happiness?

Everyone I meet eventually asks me this question, usually sooner rather than later.

The good news is that there are many secrets to happiness. But some keys to happiness are much more powerful than others, and the more powerful ones tend to be more surprising, as well.

I’ve studied the science related to happiness and positive emotions for more than a decade. A little over a year ago, I took a step back from the research to determine which happiness tips were the most powerful for my coaching clients, and in my own life.

What emerged was a list of real-life keys to happiness that I had never really blogged or written about, and that my colleagues haven’t been teaching or talking about.

I was so surprised! (And truly glad to be surprised! I can only tell people to practice gratitude so many times before we all start looking for something new.)

3 Surprising Happiness Tips Webinar

In any case, I’m going to share my 3 Surprising Happiness Tips in a quick, free webinar I hope you will join us! Register now here.

How to Say No Gracefully

Three Steps to Say “No” Gracefully

Yesterday, a friend asked me if she could borrow my car to run a long-distance errand because my little car gets better mileage than her big one. I wanted to say “no”; switching cars on an already busy day felt like a hassle to me. But I didn’t say no. Instead, I hemmed and hawed and hesitated, hoping she’d get the hint.

It can be really hard to say no. Despite my best attempts not to care what other people think of me, I still find myself wanting to be liked. I don’t want people to think I’m selfish. More than that, I don’t want to be selfish. And I never want to miss easy opportunities to help someone out.

But we human beings will often choose what is most satisfying in the present rather than what will make us happiest in the future—and pleasing others (and thinking of ourselves as generous) by saying “yes” tends to be far more pleasant in the present than saying “no.” But saying yes when we want to say no tends to bite us later, in the form of resentment and exhaustion.

We can make better decisions by picturing ourselves moments before the event in question. Would we be relieved if it were canceled? If so, we’ve gotta say no now so that we don’t find ourselves trying to weasel out of it later. Here’s how.

  1. Rehearse Saying No.

When we are stressed and tired, we tend to act habitually. Knowing this, we can train our brain to habitually say no rather than yes to requests by rehearsing a go-to response when people ask us for favors. Research shows that when we make a specific plan before we are confronted with a request, we are far more likely later to act in a way that’s consistent with our original intentions.

Something simple—like, “That doesn’t work for me this time”—is almost always sufficient. (See this post for 21 more ways to say no.) Pick a default way to respond when you don’t want to do something, and practice saying it before you need it.

  1. Be clear about your priorities and truthful in your refusal.

Saying no is easier when we’re clear about our priorities; it’s even harder to decline a request when our reasons for doing so seem unimportant.

I could see that if I had to switch cars with my friend it was going to screw up my whole morning, and it would mean that while I could make it to my meeting in time, I would not be able to take the dog for a morning walk. “I won’t be able to walk the dog,” would have felt like a weak explanation. But walking the dog is my favorite part of my morning, and I count on it to get centered for the day. So, it was also true for me to say, “I have plans in the morning which would make it hard for me to switch cars with you tomorrow.”

Note that even though I was being vague about my plans, I was telling the truth. Untrue excuses and white-lies lead to further entanglements and greater stress. Lying sends your unconscious the message that there’s something wrong with saying no—but there’s not.

Be honest, but don’t be afraid to be vague. Telling the truth is not the same as sharing more details than are necessary, even if someone asks why you can’t help them out or come to their party. Detailed explanations imply that the other person can’t handle a simple no—and they often lead to people solving your conflicts for you, when you don’t really want them to.

If your “no” isn’t accepted with grace, persist. Repeat your point calmly, using the same words. This will help the other person see that you are sticking to your no, and that their pestering isn’t changing your answer. If that doesn’t work and you need something else to say, express empathy. For example, say, “I understand that you are in a tough spot here,” or, “I know this is hard for you to accept.”

If they still won’t back down, tell them the truth about how you are feeling. For example: “I feel uncomfortable and a little angry when you continue to ask me even though I’ve declined.” Focus on your emotions—how their refusal to accept your honest answer is making you feel—and not the logistical details or logic for your refusal.

  1. Make your decision final.

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert has famously shown that when we can change our mind, we tend to be a lot less happy with our decisions. So, once we decline an invitation, we need to make an effort to focus on the good that will come from saying no, not the regret or guilt we might feel. Perhaps we will be better rested because we didn’t go to a party, or we’ll feel less resentful because we let someone else help out. Maybe saying no to one thing frees up time for another (more joyful) activity.

Say you are thinking of missing your monthly book club because you aren’t interested in the book. Send your RSVP as a definitive no, not a “maybe.” And then immediately turn your attention to all the time you just freed up for yourself.  What do you get to do now instead?

This strategy can be a great tool for offsetting the fear of missing out. The brain reacts to potentially missing out on something in the same way it would with an actual loss. By focusing on what we gain by saying no, we keep our brain from perceiving loss.

If you are feeling nervous about saying no, take a moment to call up the respect for yourself that you’d like others to feel for you. It takes courage to consider your own needs and priorities along with the needs of others. But it’s worth it. In the long run, the ability to say no is a little-known key to happiness.

Need more help saying no? I hope you’ll join my Brave Over Perfect Coaching group, where we practice the skills we need to say “no” strategically, so that we can say “yes” with joy and abandon. Learn more here.