Credit: Jane Tan

Turning 30 is certainly a cause for celebration… but what are we celebrating exactly? In ‘My Dirty 30s’, columnist Samantha Y. reflects on the good, the bad, and the downright ugly truth about what this decade spells for “ageing” millennials like herself. 

As a young girl, it was impressed upon me that saying no is rude. I blame it on my traditional Asian upbringing. If you too, grew up in a somewhat old-school Chinese family, you would know exactly what I’m talking about. Doing whatever our elders told us to do, no questions asked, is considered respectful and therefore, expected — never mind that they are constantly bulldozing over our boundaries.

For the longest time, I never even considered that saying no was an option. I said yes to everything. As a student, I picked up extra classroom duties just because a teacher or a fellow classmate asked. And when it came to group projects, I would silently shoulder the workload of slacking teammates, on top of my share of the work, just to avoid conflict. Year after year, teachers remarked on my report card that I was a “polite and helpful girl”.

First off, I really wish society would stop pushing the narrative that girls have to be sugar spice and everything nice. Because guess what this polite and helpful girl grew up to be? That’s right — a people-pleaser who put everyone else’s needs above hers.

Here’s a frustrating example: early on in my career, I enthusiastically took on non-promotable tasks, thinking that buying birthday cakes or making reservations for team lunches would count towards my appraisal at the end of the year (spoiler alert: they didn’t).

I’m not the only one with this experience. While conducting research for their book The No Club: Putting A Stop To Women’s Dead-End Work, a group of female professors found that the median female employee spent 200 more hours per year on non-promotable tasks, compared to her male counterparts. Women are also disproportionately assigned such tasks and are 48% more likely to volunteer for them! So turns out I’m not only doing myself a huge disservice — I’m sabotaging other women too.

My inability to say no had more serious consequences as I moved up the corporate ladder. My direct reports pushed back on their deliverables just because they could, while my managers were only too happy to dump more work on me. She’s capable, they said. What they didn’t know was that I was meeting their high standards at my own expense, which eventually resulted in severe burnout.

Being an agreeable person did me no favours in my private life either. Take dining out with my friends for instance. I’d say OK to sharing dishes that I didn’t like so as not to annoy my friends. I’d also say yes to splitting a bottle of wine, even though my budget only allowed for a glass. These seem like minor things, but such incidents have caused me to overspend and allowed resentment to fester because I felt like my friends weren’t being considerate of my preferences. But how would they know, especially when I’ve never rejected their suggestions and instead, chose to internalise my unhappiness?

It took me a while, but I finally learnt how to say no at the ripe old age of 30. And it’s like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders — one that I’ve been carrying ever since my teachers slapped the label of a “polite and helpful girl” on me.

I started with the small things first, like saying no to hangouts that I wasn’t enthusiastic about or sharing a dish I didn’t like at Beauty In The Pot. Each ‘no’ was met with a quick ‘OK’ and that was it. I don’t know why I had it in my head that rejecting people would earn me the reputation of being rude or brusque.
Eventually, I worked up the courage to say no to bigger things.

When I was in the hospital giving birth to my child, I said no to visitors. It was great being in a cocoon with my husband and newborn for those three days. And besides, labour was rough — I was definitely in no shape to entertain any visitors, no matter how well-meaning. I also said no to hosting the traditional full-month celebration for my child. I really thought I would get into trouble for this one, especially with my in-laws. But after explaining that I do not wish to expose a vulnerable baby to covid or other equally infectious strains of respiratory illnesses, my boundary was upheld and extended family were more than happy to wait for a little while more before visiting in small groups.

My newfound ability to say no couldn’t have come at a better time — it alleviated a lot of anxiety, which allowed me to relish the first few months of motherhood. More recently, I said no to a big promotion at work. I know, who does that? But I’ve been more protective of my boundaries since becoming a parent, and to be completely honest, there’s no way I could balance the increased responsibilities at work on top of taking care of my baby… and excel at both.

But that’s another column for another day.