Recently in these pages, Meredith MC commented that “for my birthday this year, I decided that my gift to myself would be to use the phrase ‘let me get back to you,’ instead of immediately saying yes to every request. I feel like I have an eight-year-old girl living in my brain who just wants everyone to like her, and she pipes up whenever someone wants my time and energy. This has left me overworked and resentful when I’ve agreed to things without pausing for thought.”
Meredith continued, “I tried saying ‘let me get back to you’ for the first time last week, and it was so wonderful to have the time and space to consider what I wanted. And to have liberation from the insecure little girl in my head. I believe everyone who habitually says ‘yes’ without thinking should try it.”
What could be better than a self-care success, right out of the gate? Happy birthday, Meredith, and may your liberation continue all year, and beyond!
If you would like to take a leaf out of Meredith’s book, read on.
“Let me get back to you” is an example of what my friend Havi Brooks calls a “buffer phrase.” It’s a stock phrase you have memorized and so can summon under pressure, and it puts a little space, a buffer, between a request and the consequences of saying “yes” too fast. A buffer phrase won’t get you out of jail for free, but it will buy you a little time to pull together your defense.
When to Use Your Buffer Phrase
- When you need time to consider whether you want to do something. You don’t know yet!
- When you are 100 percent clear you want to say No!!! A thousand times No! A WORLD of No! but belligerence would not be called for.
- When you know you don’t want to say yes, but you’d like to formulate a response most likely to be met with peaceful acceptance, if possible.
- And if peaceful acceptance is impossible or unlikely, when you need time to brace yourself for pushback.
- Or, just for the practice! You can use your buffer phrase when you mean to say yes, just to “rep it out,” as practitioners of many disciplines say.
- When you want to teach everyone to expect you to consider requests instead of always saying yes right away.
One time I was flying from Puerto Vallarta to Boston, just having finished a Zen retreat. (Well, it was more of a vacation. And a spot of meditation.) My retreat roommate and I had been assigned two seats in a three-seat economy row, and the other seat was empty. The pilot had just introduced herself and her also female co-pilot—a first and only for me!—and we were just high-fiving each other over all the good vibes when the flight attendant came by to ask if we would give up our row to a couple with a baby. They would be more comfortable, and we would have a flight experience no worse than usual.
I was aware of feeling startled first, and then resentful as thoughts of sexism occurred. Would we have been asked if we’d been men? (Not a chance.) But I was silent until I saw the stricken look on my friend’s face, and then out of my mouth popped, “Can you give us a moment?”
The attendant said yes, of course, and my friend said, “Omigosh, thank you, I was just feeling so grateful to have a little space to reacclimate after being on retreat, and I would have hated being squeezed in after the gift of an empty seat.”
The flight attendant never came back.
Anyway, that’s why we need buffer phrases. Our training as women is about accommodating others. (Side note: As a student of Zen, or heck, a HUMAN!, you do plenty of that anyway. We’re just trying to interrupt an unhealthy and inflexible reflex.) But as adults, we must take care of ourselves first, because if we don’t, our self-neglect is gonna roll downhill on someone we love.
Nevertheless, not everyone will greet our buffer phrase with glad cries of Of course you must take time to decide what is best! In fact, people might get mad at us—and then they go to Plan B! Because people are resourceful.
But some other things might happen, too. One is that we gain a lot more time in our life, as well as the emotional space to decide what we want to do with it. (WORTH it!)
Another thing that happens when we practice using buffer phrases, as noted above, is that they get a whole lot easier to use. We say them, we don’t get kicked out of the tribe, we survive, and our survival panic subsides. Then we’re able to say “Let me get back to you” without the internal drama, and that dials down the external drama like a charm.
And in that drama-free space, we get to consider what’s best for us, along with what’s best for everyone else.
Resources and More Buffer Phrases
- “I have some things in flux right now; I’ll have to let you know.” — Lisa Sonora Beam
- “I have a policy of [never/always doing X]. It’s not personal, it’s a policy!” Origin unknown.
- Alternatively, from Martha Beck: Just tell them the truth.
- And Shonda Rhimes’s memoir Year of Yes is also about saying no. Sometimes you have to say no to another to say yes to yourself.