When You're Relearning the Art of Saying 'No' as Someone With PTSD

Before I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I had been pretty good at saying “no.” I was working full-time, raising a family and was extremely busy. If I was invited to an event or asked to join a committee in the evening, it was easy for me to say, “I would love to, but I just can’t fit it into my schedule right now. ” I didn’t feel that I was being rude, isolating myself, or not participating in society at large. If I wasn’t interested or couldn’t do something, I said “no.”

Getting easily overwhelmed and triggered is one (of many) symptoms that is front and center of my PTSD. I love the idea of going to new restaurants, concerts, plays, monthly writing gatherings, trying new classes and attending house party celebrations. I’m interested and I’m grateful for the invitations. I want to say “yes” and sometimes I do; but I’ve noticed that I’m having a hard time saying, “Thanks for the invitation, but no thank you.” Now when I say “no,” I find myself feeling guilty and anti-social. Those feelings are triggers and old self-destructive messages. I need to be careful that I don’t press play and begin to listen to the tapes of all the reasons I’m a failure and can’t control this illness.

I’m not sure what changed. My family and friends do not put any pressure to accept or decline invitations. I appreciate that they ask me to participate in events and gatherings. They don’t forget me or assume I’m going to say no.

In the meditation part of a yoga class the other day,  all I could think about (when I wasn’t supposed to be focused on thinking) was how I didn’t want to go to another class later that day. I was afraid I would hurt someone’s feelings if I said “no.” Before my illness, I would have said, “No thank you, I already do a yoga class on Tuesday mornings, so I don’t want to do another one in the evening.”

Now, I find myself stumbling when asked to do something. In recent years, I’ve had to cancel some pretty significant commitments or have had a really hard time coping once I’m at an activity. I have had to leave early or I have had to say, “I’m really overwhelmed and don’t feel safe.” When that happens, I feel terrible and very disappointed in myself. I feel like a burden to my friends and family and I feel so “mentally ill.”

Intimate gatherings and going to familiar places are recipes for social success for me. If I do go to places that have the potential of becoming overwhelming or triggering, I make sure to go with a good support person. I have some really good coping tools that I employ on a regular basis, but sometimes all the tools and good intentions don’t work as well as I hope when my symptoms begin to ramp-up.

I need to relearn how to say “no” without feeling guilty or shame. Recently, I said “no” to an invitation and the person was quite taken aback. I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t participate in that, I’m doing the best I can and I just can’t do that right now.” She stopped for a moment (maybe checking what she had been saying to me) and said, “of course you are.” All was fine as we continued our conversation, but I felt intense shame for saying the words, “I’m doing the best I can.”

Since that day, I have been watching what invitations I have been accepting and paying attention to how I feel when I say “no.” I’m sure this is all another layer of accepting my PTSD and learning to live with, not fight against my symptoms. But I find I need to relearn the art of saying “no.”

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