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When Self-Care Means Saying 'No'

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I’ve been thinking about this since the beginning of the month – what is the most important piece of self-care that I practice? A lot of things went through my head. Some were downright practical, such as always taking my medications.

Others I enjoy: I paint my nails when I’ve had a busy day, as it ensures I will stop doing things for the half an hour it takes for them to dry. A face mask is good for the same reason! While these are on the scale between essential and enjoyable, there is one piece of self-care that keeps coming back to me. The one that has saved me again and again and again.

It’s when self care means saying no. And it was a really hard lesson for me to learn.

I suspect many of you are like me and tend towards people pleasing. As women, I think we’re raised towards people-pleasing a little; always be polite, pitch in, and to help out. Also, many chronically ill people are known to be at home and people assume that means we have time and energy on our hands to do things for them.

Whatever the reason, the point is we all have things that we know we don’t have the energy or time to be doing. Usually, when I ask myself why I am doing the activity in question, no matter the activity, the answer always seems to be the same – I don’t want to let someone down.

I started off very tentatively saying no. And it was really hard. However, and trust me on this, it’s a lot quicker to decline being president of the local sports club than it is to try and back out later when you’re over-committed, sick and unable to fulfill your duties. Yes, people gave a moments frown when I simply stated, “I’m unable to do that at this time.” I did feel judged, but for the barest moment in time. The alternative would have been saying yes and then have to make constant apologies as I was unable to turn up at the last minute, despite all my best efforts. Being unable to perform those duties once I had committed to them; that would be letting people down. Stating honestly that I am unable to do it upfront? That wasn’t letting people down at all. In fact, I soon realized it was a form of standing up for myself.

I vowed to do it more often.

Now, this makes it sound easy, I know. But years and years of saying yes, or worse, actively volunteering time and energy I didn’t have, was working against me. At first, I would begin, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that. It’s not that I don’t want to, but my illness means that…” and I would stumble on awkwardly making apologies and what may have sounded like excuses to people. This would take time and I’d become embarrassed. I decided I needed to work out a better way to say no without feeling so awkward.

A quote from my mother’s favorite actress, Katharine Hepburn, actually solved the problem for me. It went as follows: “Never complain.
Never explain.” That was it. I had my lightbulb moment. That small, four word sentence completely changed the way I say no.

Instead of apologizing, stammering and feeling awkward, I just stopped explaining myself. After all, I’m actually not sorry I can’t do it. I’m not Superwoman. I can’t do everything. In the same breath, by not explaining why I couldn’t do it, I found the whiny sounding excuses that were the reasoning behind my logic just ceased to be a factor. Just say no, very politely, you are unable to do it.

Then stop yourself. Just. Stop. Speaking.

Because it doesn’t matter why you can’t do it. In fact, why you can’t is nobody’s business but your own. A flicker of a frown or a half raised eyebrow are the closest thing to a negative response I have ever had – and I have used this trick for over 10 years now. No one is losing sleep over you saying no. Canceling things – that’s going to cause organizational problems down the track. But just saying no? That’s a knack. One that chronically ill people desperately need.

It took practice. My advice is to start small. Say no to a friend rather than your boss for your first try. Fight the urge to explain yourself. While you’re not explaining, stop that other half of the sentence which sounds like a complaint. Bite your tongue. Count to five. Jiggle your leg. Do whatever it takes to not continue. Personally, I like to imagine Katharine Hepburn in that moment; straight backed, chin thrust out with those steely eyes of hers locked onto mine, daring me to keep my mouth shut. I take a deep breath and let that image just sit at the forefront of my mind. Then the moment has passed. It is all over. You’ve successfully said no. The relief you feel will far outweigh the moment of discomfort. So much so, that I know it’s a technique that will work its way into your repertoire.

Try it. Say no today. You’ll be so glad that you did.

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Thinkstock Image By: twinsterphoto

Originally published: June 16, 2017
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