My therapist pointed out the obvious the other day. “You just don’t like saying no.”
I was telling her that I don’t know what to do about a request made by a friend earlier this week. I was conflicted. But she was right. I did know what to do and what I wanted to do, I just didn’t like that I’d have to actually do it.
It’s not as simple as just not wanting to say no because it’s so damn difficult to do it. It’s that feeling of guilt that goes along with it that’s excruciating. It makes me feel like a horrible person. For some reason it seems that I subconsciously feel responsible for making people feel good, and not upsetting them. The latter probably arises from my fear of conflict. The threat of it alone can make me panic or shut down. I had a traumatic childhood, so I’m hyper sensitive to conflict. Avoidance, and always putting others first seems like the best option. Even though in reality, it’s not.
Along with the guilt and fear of conflict, is the anxiety that comes with thinking of turning down an invitation or telling someone I can’t help them with something. What goes on inside my head when I want to say no? It’s a battlefield of trying to reason and justify those reasons within myself. All the worst case scenarios and possible consequences moving at breakneck speed through my brain. The thought process towards saying no is difficult and utterly exhausting. So it seems easier to just agree and say yes, especially when the person is right in front of me or on the phone and wanting an immediate answer. Or so it seems at first. But then I realize (once again) that I torture myself anyway for having agreed to something I didn’t want to agree to. It’s a vicious cycle.
As children we’re taught to obey our parents and other authority figures. To do as we’re told. “Don’t want to hug your aunt? Too bad, you don’t have a choice. It’s what we do in this family.” If you grew up being told your feelings, wants, and needs don’t matter, it can be very difficult to start developing boundaries and a sense of self of being worthy and valuable. But it’s important that we do.
Over the past few years, through therapy and my time in the psychiatric clinic and support groups, I’ve learned a lot about healthy boundaries. I’ve learned that my feelings, wants, and needs matter as well. That I need to put myself first. This is easier said than done though, and it doesn’t happen overnight. I still struggle to enforce my boundaries and feel guilty for them sometimes. But the important thing is that I’m working on it and have become better at it.
I’ve realized that in order to avoid meltdowns, shutdowns, and ultimately, burnout, I have to consider myself and the possible costs to my mental (and physical) health when deciding on what to do. I was supposed to join a friend on a photography weekend early on Saturday morning, but was honest with her and told her that going wouldn’t be the best thing for me at this point. I’m not coping at the moment and spending a weekend around people I don’t know and sleeping in a bed and place I’ve never been before would only make matters worse. I needed to take care of myself this weekend. It was very hard telling her I wasn’t going to be joining her, but I feel that I made the best decision for myself.
In the past I wasn’t able to cancel anything. If I told someone I would be doing something with or for them, no matter how I was feeling, I’d follow through. Now I know that it’s okay to say no. And that I have the right to change my mind. The discomfort of this is still hard to deal with, but as an adult I have more resources for managing that discomfort.
It’s okay to say no. And I have the right to change my mind.
Saying no isn’t easy. But having healthy boundaries in place protects our well-being, ensures that we don’t get burned out, and that we have the energy to say yes to something else.