“No, I think I’m going to stay home today,” I tell my friend when she asks me to come over. This is a sentence that years ago would have been cloaked in apologies, if uttered at all. But then again, years ago the consequences of not saying no weren’t as high.
Life is made up of choices, and it seems that being an adult can sometimes be one difficult decision after another. Do I go out with my friends tonight, or do I get some much-needed rest before a big day tomorrow? Do I take this promotion at work that comes with extra money, but more time commitment, or do I keep my current position and have more time with my kids?
For me, these decisions have never been easy — even as a teenager, I can remember being torn between decisions. My default mode was to say “yes” to just about everything, whether plans with friends, household responsibilities, or extra duties at work. This was partly because I wanted to do all those things; I wanted to have fun with my friends, be helpful for my family, and continue to move forward in my career. But there was also a certain level of guilt I felt when saying “no.” I wondered: Would I be seen as lazy? Would my friends think I didn’t want to see them?
There were many times I felt run down and tired, but I kept pushing myself beyond the limits of my body (and sometimes beyond the limits of my mental health). I’d tell myself it was okay, that the positives of doing all of these things were worth the toll it was taking on me.
Until one day, that was no longer the case.
My Body Said “No”
My body said “no” for me, putting me in bed, ill. I became sick with ankylosing spondylitis, and the migraine attacks I had lived with my entire life came back with a vengeance. My body finally put its foot down, telling me in no uncertain terms that it was time to start saying “no” to things and saying “yes” to myself.
It took me a while (and honestly, there are still many times when I struggle) to shift from honoring all the requests life and others were making of me to honoring myself and the needs of my body. Just because I’d become disabled didn’t mean I no longer wanted to do all the things. I did, and the guilt for not doing the things was strong.
Learning to Say “Yes” to Myself
There were several things that helped me to transition my mindset. First, I got the help of professionals. I worked with a therapist and pain management specialists to learn to prioritize things in my life, with myself being at the top of those priorities. Therapy helped me to see the value and importance in myself, and the various professionals in the pain management program helped give me the tools to take care of myself.
Second, I practiced radical vulnerability. My stepmom once told me that when we ask for help we give others the opportunity to help us, which can be a joy and blessing for them as much as it is for us. I stepped out in faith and practiced, sharing what I was going through with my family and friends and asking for help. Having long assumed the role of helper, it felt scary to shift roles and now be the one asking for help. However, when I asked, it was absolutely astonished how people showed up for me. My life now strikes a better balance between helping others when I can and receiving help when I need it.
Finally, I practiced saying “no.” I started by saying “no” to small things, and to people who felts safe and who I know without a doubt wouldn’t judge me. I gained more confidence in my voice and more trust that the world wouldn’t fall apart just because I declined doing something. I began practicing with friends stating my needs and boundaries. If a friend asked for me to come over on a bad day, I may say “yes,” but let them know that I may need to lay down during our visit or make it a short one.
The more I practiced saying “no” and setting boundaries, the easier it became. Along with that, it became easier to say “yes” to myself.
A Continual Process
I’m not claiming to be perfect at this, as I still struggle from time to time, especially when I’m feeling better physically. During those moments, I tend to fall back into old patterns and start saying “yes” to everything, neglecting what my body truly needs. However, I’ve become more self-aware over time, and I usually catch myself before it’s too late. I start to notice when I’m feeling stretched thin, when tears come easily, when everything seems overwhelming, and when a sense of resentment creeps in. When these signs appear, I recognize that it’s time for a reset, and I must prioritize saying “yes” to myself.
Recently, I was presented with a job opportunity that seemed quite appealing. It was a job I knew I could excel at, and the compensation would have alleviated some of the financial stresses associated with living on disability. However, it would have required me to return to full-time work with a daily commute, and deep down, I knew my body couldn’t handle it. I wrestled with this decision for days. While I knew I could probably push through for a short while, I also realized that in the long run, it would have been a detrimental choice, likely severely impacting both my physical and mental well-being.
In the end, I finally mustered up the strength (along with a fair number of tears) and said “no” to the job. In doing so, though, I said “yes” to myself. I said “yes” to continuing with the part-time work I do and absolutely love. I said “yes” to having the time and space to rest when my body needs it. I said “yes” to not driving hours each day, which causes me a lot of pain. I said “yes” to prioritizing the needs of my body.
Saying “no” to things can be hard, but it doesn’t have to mean we’re missing out. It can simply mean that we’re prioritizing other things in our lives. For me, I choose to prioritize myself and the needs of my mind and body. In doing so, I end up far happier than when I was saying “yes” to all the things. In doing so, I say “yes” to myself.
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