I know for certain that it's something I have spent a lot of time the last few years trying to bring to the forefront of my consciousness. I thought, "Well, even if I can't feel kindness for myself, perhaps I can make a habit of doing things that are aimed at being nicer to myself and eventually it might feel more natural."
One of those things was learning to say no.
And not just saying no but, first, not beating myself up about wanting to say no.
It didn't happen overnight. In fact, for most of my life, I identified myself as a "yes" person. I liked being thought of as a go-to person who was resourceful and helpful. And I wanted people to like me.
But by the time I was in my twenties and thirties, I realized that I was saying yes to things that made me unhappy. And then the fact that I knew I wanted to say no, but felt as if I couldn't made me unhappy.
As a person who struggles with anxiety and depression, things that seem benign and even enjoyable to other people can be very difficult for me. And for a long time, I chastised myself for my feelings. So when people would ask me to do things that felt uncomfortable, I forced myself to do them anyway.
And part of that was because I thought I should want to do them. I thought I wanted to be somebody that, as I've gotten to know myself better, is not the person I am.
I am not someone who wants to be the center of attention. I am not someone who wants to be "popular" and included in everything. Years of having programmed myself to want to be those things had made it almost impossible for me to figure out what I really wanted.
For years, I continued to feel bad that I didn't enjoy things that everyone else does. I would spend hours feeling unhappy that things that seemed fun for other people were fraught with anxiety for me.
Over time, and with a lot of support from my husband, I've come to realize that my feelings are valid. And, also, that it really doesn't matter if other people don't understand or judge me for my feelings. The people who are the most important to me understand. And even if they don't, they accept me for who I am.
So I started saying no.
At first it was kind of scary. It honestly felt like I was doing something wrong. I didn't want people to be mad. I didn't want to hurt people's feelings. But I knew that my own feelings needed to be as important to me as other people's feelings, and that if I didn't start acknowledging those feelings, there would not be a path to happiness for me.
For example, most parties aren't fun for me. I find them stressful and exhausting. So there were many times when, to avoid them, I would simply say I couldn't go. But it always made me feel bad. I didn't like lying to people. It always made me feel like there was something wrong with me.
So I made a decision to start saying no and being as honest as I could. Now I say, "Thank you so much for the invitation, but I'm really not a party person" or "No, I'm really just not feeling up to it right now."
I don't mean to oversimplify it. It's hard. And it's scary. And if you aren't a person who feels comfortable being honest with your friends or family, this likely won't work for you because "no" is often interpreted as rejection, and people don't react well to rejection. But I felt like I had to be honest with the people I cared about. And I thought ultimately it would be easier for the people around me to know how I honestly felt about things instead of always having to hear some kind of excuse from me.
And I know there are lots of times when an outright "no" is not the appropriate thing to do. We all have responsibilities or relationships that need to honored. But just knowing that saying no is a valid and available option is empowering.
Some things I have learned about saying no:
—Don't say it unless you mean it. My family knows I don't like parties. And I'm pretty open with people that I'm not a party person. One day my daughter noticed that a friend of mine was having a party and she assumed I knew about it. I said no, I hadn't been invited. She got very hurt on my behalf, saying she thought I should have been invited and asked me several times if I was upset. But I wasn't. The party was being hosted by a good friend and she knows I would probably have said no even if she had invited me. I reminded my daughter that since I say no to many invitations, I don't assume people will always continue to send them. And sometimes, even if people really like you, they aren't going to invite you to every party they throw. It's better to not get hung up on trying to guess what other people are thinking. The important fact was that I didn't want to go to the party, so I wasn't going to get upset that I didn't get invited.
—You don't have to explain yourself all the time. Sometimes when I say no, I feel an overwhelming urge to come up with "valid" reasons why I'm saying no. But that's habit. It's okay to say no simply because that's what feels right to you. You don't usually owe people an explanation. And sometimes you have reasons that wouldn't make sense to other people anyway. Try to remember that you don't have to validate your feelings to other people.
—Don't say no in a vacuum. By that I mean don't be selfish about saying no. If you literally have zero responsibility to anyone else because you live on a mountaintop and don't depend on a single living soul for any reason, then go ahead and say no to everything. But most of us live in a community of some sort. And being part of a community means sometimes doing things we don't want to do. Being able to say no is important. But knowing when to say yes is also important.
—Saying no takes practice. First, I had to realize that I had an option to say no. It sounds silly, but it didn't occur to me that it was okay to not want to do things other people wanted me to do. I had to break my instinct to say yes to everything. Then I had to learn how to identify whether or not I actually wanted to do things or didn't want to do them. That's surprisingly difficult. Most importantly, and this is ongoing, I have to constantly remind myself not to get trapped into the vicious cycle of worrying about what other people think about me.
For people who are chronically ill—physically or mentally—learning to say no is important for their health. But it can be very hard, especially when they often rely on other people to do things for them. I asked my mom about her experiences learning to say no to people.
Do you remember when you realized you couldn't do things that people were asking you to do because of your health?
Actually, I remember it vividly because it was triggered by a particular event. It was returning to work part-time after being in bed for six months because of the virus I got in Paris almost 16 years ago. I really had no business going back to work. I was too sick. But I couldn't believe that I wasn't recovering. I just couldn't believe it. So I went back to work part-time, teaching one class instead of a full load. But even that was way too much.
I've talked about this before about how your dad would leave work, even though his work was in another town from where we live, pick me up at home and drive me to the law school and then go back to work. Then, when I was finished teaching, he'd leave work again, pick me up from school and drive me home, then go back to work himself. It was obvious I was too sick to be there.
Back to your question. As soon as I went back to work, my colleagues, out of kindness, wanted to include me in lots of social stuff. It was mostly going out to lunch, but I was too sick to do it. My energy was completely focused on just surviving getting through my teaching.
I had to say no.
Unfortunately, I turned that against myself. I blamed myself for having to say no. I worried they wouldn't understand because, to the casual observer, I didn't look sick. And I was afraid they didn't believe me. It was truly awful. So yeah, I clearly remember when I was forced by my health to say no. I felt terrible about it, but I've learned since then that saying no can feel liberating—which is what you discovered.
Do you have advice for people who find it difficult to say no?
I'd advise people to treat saying no as an act of self-compassion. As you said in your piece, it takes practice—not just saying no, but not feeling guilty about having said it. Once you get up the nerve to do it, it becomes easier each time. Because, again as you said, it's a habit. Our usual habit is to say yes to everything because we don't want to offend people and we don't want them to think badly of us.
It took a while, but I finally realized that saying no was a way of taking care of myself.
There's a Buddhist story I'd like to share:
One day the Buddha told a story about an acrobat and his assistant. The acrobat erected a bamboo pole and told his assistant to climb up it and stand on his shoulders. Then the acrobat said to his assistant: "Now you watch after me and I'll watch after you. This way we can show off our skill and come down safely from the pole."
But the assistant replied: "That won't do teacher. You watch after yourself and I'll watch after myself and in that way we can show off our skill and come down safely from the pole."
The Buddha said: "What the assistant said is right in this case because when one watches after oneself, one watches after others.”
This story seems relevant to this topic because saying no is a way of "watching after oneself"—but the wonderful thing is that it also means that you're watching after those whom you love because they're happier when you're happier.
Let's be honest, there have surely been times when I've said no to you, and it probably hurt your feelings.
Well, since I've been sick, it's been hard for us to see each other in person, so we're left with phone calls and email and texting. And you don't like to do those things very much. So sometimes I would ask you how things were going and you'd say something like "I don't want to talk right now." At first, I did feel hurt that you didn't want to share stuff about your life. But now, I realize that's just how you are. I know you would do anything for me if I asked. Knowing that helped me accept that it's okay that we're not in close touch. So I'm not hurt anymore when you say I don't want to talk about things. I don't take it personally. I've realized that it's part of who you are, and it doesn't mean you don't love me.