It’s not so hard to say. NO. In fact, I’m excellent at saying it. Saying it here, curled up in my living room with a cup of tea.
Away from my living room tea-sipping, it’s a different story. I do not say no. I cannot say no. It’s like Mongolian throat singing or rolling my R’s in Spanish: I just do not have the…. mouth muscles, perhaps?…. to create those beautiful sounds. Sounds like nnnnnnoooooo.
That’s not entirely true. In the blackest of the pits of depression, I said no to a lot of things. No, I don’t want to pick up this phone call, I’ll let it go straight to voicemail again. No, I don’t want to go to a concert, I’d rather eat dry cereal and watch Nicholas Sparks movies. I said no to the beams of light that were attempting to break through the darkness. Have I mentioned those were black pits?
But I don’t mean saying no to beams of light. I mean saying no to adding yet another grocery bag on my already loaded arms. Another check-box on the to-do list. Another worry to zing around my mind while I try to sleep. I say many things to those check-boxes and grocery bags. Things like “Sure! No problem! It’s not a big deal! I’m happy to!” None of those sounds especially like no.
This is the tale as old as time, isn’t it? I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t shared a similar experience of being unable to say no. And we know it, too. That’s the worst part. It’s like we rise up out of our bodies when our co-worker dumps another project on our desk, watching our bodies smile and nod cheerfully while we scream wordlessly and smack our foreheads.
I’ve long known I was unable to say no. But I didn’t notice it so acutely until I hit the rock-bottom of burnout, stress, and despair. I looked at the sky-high piles of obligations around me in disbelief. What had I done? How had I gotten here?
I had no time to drop everything and make 500 copies of a too long-procrastinated meeting agenda, but I always did. I couldn’t bring two extra plates of cookies to the party because no one else had signed up, but I broke out the mixing bowls. I had no extra space in my heart (and no money) to leave town for another emotionally-draining weekend with family members, but I booked a ticket. So what business did I have saying yes?
This business, it turns out. I began listening to my internal dialogue (which I fondly call the Peanut Gallery) when I took on another burden. While my heart groaned under the weight of more baggage, my mind chattered away, “Maybe now my grumpy co-worker will like me!” “I ought to make the extra-complicated cookies so I’ll get compliments on my baking” “Now my family will finally realize that I give up everything for them.”
This is hard, hard, hard to write. These are the ugly thoughts, the ones I’d like to keep under lock and key. I’d like to appear selfless and golden-hearted. But instead, I am human. Sometimes, I say yes because I want approval. Sometimes, I say yes because I’m afraid of what I might lose if I say no. Oof. The jig is up.
Somewhere along the line – between towering family expectations and the media’s constant onslaught of Not Good Enough – we learned that we are what we do. We must prove ourselves to everyone we encounter. We only have worth as long as we are performing, producing, and pleasing. When we stop, our worth stops. No matter that we are exhausted to the point of illness. No matter that we are deliberately choosing to take on things that bring more darkness than light. We have to prove that we belong here. The show must go on.
We have to stop the show.
My piles of obligations have been gathering lately. I had hoped that working remotely would give me more freedom in my schedule, but paradoxically, it’s loosened the boundaries that protect my time. It’s easier to be asked for favors, to run over to the store, to plan the party. The work can wait, I can do it at any time. Which is to say, midnight. The self-care? Well, forget about it.
I have to stop the show.
I remembered this today after the fourth phone call. I recognized myself floating out of my body and screaming at myself as I prepared to nod and smile again. I took a breath. And another breath.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t have the time.”
It was simple. Two sentences, then a friendly goodbye. Then, of course, I hung up and cried. The Peanut Gallery chimed in helpfully: What have you done? They’ll hate you now! Call back! I didn’t call back. I went out and walked around the block without my phone so that I couldn’t call back. I repeated to myself over and over that I have worth, no matter whether I say yes or no. I felt silly. That was okay.
Sometimes, filling the well means making space, clearing out all the piles of obligations. Only then can we have enough space for our own, shining, incomparable joy.
Words and Music:
Life is so beautiful:
A helpful reminder: