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“No” is a complete sentence.
Most of my life, I’ve been a yes (wo)man, a professional people pleaser, and a conflict avoider.
I stayed out of trouble, got good grades, and made sure never, under any circumstances, to disappoint anyone.
This was my M.O. in friendships, in work situations, and in relationships. I said yes to everything if it meant keeping the peace, including activities that didn’t interest me, movies I didn’t want to see, and even people I didn’t want to date, because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.
I was always the one trying to steady the boat and make sure we all got along.
In romantic relationships, I excelled at chameleoning myself into whatever I thought my partner wanted me to be. You like NASCAR? Great! I’ll ignore the fact that I’ve been an environmentalist my entire life and happily join you to watch cars exacerbate climate change by burning thousands of gallons of fuel.
One particular relationship stripped me of any sense of autonomy. Years of systematic emotional abuse and gaslighting left me reeling, questioning whether I had a right to even exist, much less the luxury of saying no to anything.
When I finally got out of that abusive relationship, I was lost. I had no clue what I wanted or even liked, and was baffled as to how to stand up for myself enough to ask for it.
Being a full-time single mom rendered me so tired, all…the…time.
No, not tired. Tired is slogging through work after staying up too late binge-watching Netflix.
I was in a chronic state of exhaustion, overwhelmed from the emotional weight of being my daughter’s sole support: financially, physically, academically, and emotionally.
Anyone who has ever been a single parent will understand how all-encompassing this is. I had to say yes to everything for her; she had no one else.
I took off work for every medical appointment, every sick day, and every school performance and parent teacher conference. I stayed up all hours of the night to put in the extra hours, and am eternally grateful for a stable job that afforded me this flexibility. I said yes to the school board. I said yes to chaperoning field trips and helping with class activities and bringing snacks for every holiday party.
While I was bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and drowning in self-inflicted guilt and perceived judgment about the horrors of taking store-bought, preservative-laden treats to her classroom instead of gluten-free, vegan, hand-harvested, organic, wholesome deliciousness, I was missing the point entirely.
I wasn’t even bothering to ask myself why I had said yes in the first place.
What I didn’t realize was that saying yes to others, even to my child, meant saying no to myself. It meant I was neglecting my physical and emotional health, my well-being. Exercise? Yoga? Who are you kidding?! Ain’t no way I got time for that. A bubble bath? Maybe in 15 years…
Saying yes meant I was actively denying my dreams, my passions, my curiosity, and my creativity, even though I had no choice but to take care of my daughter. Pursuing my own passions was an extravagance I couldn’t even comprehend. I wasn’t paying attention to the friendships that were being neglected. I couldn’t recall the last time I had done something for the simple joy of experiencing it.
I understand now that what damaged me the most was saying yes to things that compromised my values, my sense of being.
It didn’t matter that I spent five hours I’ll never get back watching cars turn left; it mattered that I didn’t value myself enough to believe that I was worthy of having opinions and preferences, and that I mattered.
Everything changed when the pain of not being true to myself outweighed the guilt over not pleasing others, when resentment crept in and clouded every decision I made that wasn’t right for me.
Learning to say no created a shift in my relationships.
At first, my family and friends were less than thrilled about my new idea of boundaries. They were used to me always being available to do everything and help everyone in whatever was requested. It caused resentments and rifts in some relationships, and I learned what kind of relationships I needed in my life and what kinds of friends were friends only when they got something from me. In others, it brought respect and made those relationships stronger.
There was a noticeable shift in my threshold of uncomfortable feelings. In the past, if I contemplated saying no to something, I would be overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, and fear of judgment, retribution, anger, or disappointment from others.
When I first dipped my toe into saying no to things that didn’t feel right for me, those same feelings of fear and guilt came up for me, but they slowly dissipated and were replaced by relief and lightness.
Today, my threshold is the opposite—when I say yes to things that don’t align with my values or aren’t something I’m excited about, I feel a pit in my stomach and my body tells me I may need to rethink my decision.
This threshold has given me invaluable clarity in what I want, like, and need, and made it easier to discern what feels right for me. I am more in tune with my heart, rather than reacting to life on autopilot. It has increased my self-confidence and belief in my own self-worth.
I’m worth making decisions that work for me. And it has opened up opportunities for me to say yes to—some of which I’d never dreamed.
Today, when I am faced with a difficult decision, I ask myself:
>> Why do I want to say yes (or no) to this request or opportunity?
>> Is this something I truly want to do? What are my body and heart telling me?
>> Will saying yes be of benefit to me, physically, emotionally, or spiritually?
>> What am I giving up if I say yes to this request?
>> What are the possible outcomes of me saying no? (I mean actual impacts, not just “damage” to someone else’s ego.)
Saying no doesn’t come easy to most of us, but if we can be honest with ourselves about why we do or don’t want to do something and the impacts our decisions have on us, it becomes easier to stop saying yes all the time.
What I’ve learned and hold tight is that “No” is a complete sentence.
I don’t have to justify my decision or my needs to anyone.
This doesn’t make me any more or less important than anyone else and their needs. It simply means that my happiness and well-being matter. I have the right to make decisions about my life, and I have the right to choose what is best for me.