Learning to say “no” – a vital step to self-care

There are often many things we feel we should do that, in fact we don’t really have to do. Getting to the point where we can tell the difference is a major milestone in the simplification process. — Elaine St. James

I am, by nature, a people pleaser. I found out when I was out in the workforce that I was not very good at saying “no”. I would say “yes” to every file/task/project that came my way (without hesitation, I might add) and then proceed to drown in my work. As a result, I worked long hours. I see now that this, in turn, conditioned me to lengthen my work days such that if I were to finish on time, I would feel guilty for leaving the office. While I loved my work and enjoyed seeing my career progress, I did, over time, feel the effects of being always switched on to work. I was stressed, found it hard to relax (in fact, I would always get sick when I took holidays) and resentment for my workplace was creeping in.

Well, as you may or may not know, I left my career in 2010 to follow Eugene to Newcastle (NSW) for his work. So I guess I never got to know whether I would have gotten better at saying “no” at work but, let me tell you, I am great at saying “no” to my little people at home. My toddler, in fact, mimics me “no no no no no no” (I swear I can hear mockery in his voice); I must say it so much.

I would credit motherhood with my improvement in being able to say “no”, not just in the day-to-day interactions with the kids but in all aspects of my life. You see, as a mum, there’s so much less time than before to do things for us and our self-care. So it becomes imperative for us to discover and prioritise the things that are the most important to us; ask ourselves what it is that we want to invest our (limited) time in.

Once we know our priorities, it’s a matter of saying “no” to those things that do not make the cut. As Steve Jobs once said, “it’s only by saying ‘no’ that you can concentrate on the things that are really important”.

This is easier said than done for me because, while I am better at it than I used to be, I still recognise that I don’t like to let people down or disappoint them. One thing I’ve found helps is not answering “yes” or “no” immediately; it’s great to be able to get back to someone once I’ve had a chance to consider whether something fits into what’s going on in life. I might add that I don’t have that much going on in my life from an appointment/ scheduled activity point of view, but I’m well aware of what my kids can or cannot handle and how stressful saying “yes” to something will be for me (for example, I would be unlikely to say “yes” to a park playdate if it’s just me wrangling the 3 kids – I’ve worked out that it’s not worth the stress of keeping an eye on all of them while trying to have an adult conversation with another parent).

In all of this, I’ve not only become a better “no” person, but on the flip side, I’ve become better at saying “yes” to the right things. I think that when you prioritise the things that are important to you, you become naturally receptive to opportunities or events that come along that you are now aware fit in with your priorities. Recently, my sister won tickets to an indoor toddler “carnival” and invited us along. While I knew it would be hard work with my 4 year old and 2 year old (my eldest was at school), I agreed to go as there were a few attractions I knew the kids would love and it was an opportunity to do something a little different and fun with them (that, to be honest, I hoped would tire them out so nap/quiet time after lunch would be easy and peaceful). We didn’t stay long at the “carnival” however, the kids had an absolute blast. For the record, my toddler completely skipped his nap that day, choosing instead to roll around in his cot chatting for a couple of hours!

Learning to say “no” (if you’re not good at it) is, I think, really important for self-care. If we prioritise the things we want to invest our selves in, and decline the things that do not fit in with our priorities, we boost our well-being and sense of self.

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage pleasantly, smilingly, and non-apologetically — to say “no” to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger yes burning inside. — Stephen Covey

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