I'm noticing that more and more of my friends, colleagues, and patients are practicing the gentle art of saying "no". This thrills me, and I think it will change the world.
I see a lot of accomplished professional women: brilliant powerhouses of overachievement who chronically take on way too much. When their bodies begin to complain loudly they come to my office for the meltdown. Stress related illnesses like insomnia, fatigue, infertility, PMS, headaches, irritable bowel, allergies, weight and hormone problems are costly and miserable and ruin relationships. There just aren't good solutions to these unless the underlying
emotional stressors get addressed. When it takes getting sick to get your attention, you're in trouble. And once you're sick, you REALLY can't care for anyone well. (Like on an airplane: you're supposed to put your own oxygen mask on first!)
Nobody these days can manage a stressless life, but good self care will help you buffer yourself so that you will age well. You can't control the waves, but you can learn to surf! Our culture does not provide models for self-care, so you'll have to get creative. Your program won't look like what your Mom does, or your girlfriend, or the people you work with. Let me assure you that decent self care won't require you to make a mess, live on four hours of sleep,
alienate your loved ones, or play hooky. And self care isn't selfish! Here are some ideas to get you started.
The most effective self-care practice involves repetition of the classic complete sentence "No." Now, remember that "no" is a word that has been familiar to us since at least the terrible two's. Why is it that the older we get, the less we remember the potent power of that tiny monosyllable? Its potential for universal application?
For many of us, it takes nerves of steel the first few times we use this expression with people we care about. When we say "no" we ruminate and fret about whether the other person thinks we're a lazy slacker. Where did we get it wired up that we have to do-do-do to earn love? To be a good person? Is this a Yankee thing?
It takes a while to learn to use "no" so start small and see what happens. Many of us have become deaf to the little voice inside that responds "no" to some inquiries or requests. See whether this applies to you do you hear "no" and still go ahead and say "oh, why not"? Is it possible to slow down a little so you can hear "no" and then actually say it aloud? For many, "no" comes up as a physical sensation, often in the stomach or "gut feeling" area.
Experiment with translations of "no": "I'm sorry, that won't be possible." "I'm just not comfortable with that." "That really doesn't work for me." "I'm sorry, but I can't take on any new responsibilities until spring."
Self care provokes re-evaluation of habitual beliefs. "This is what mothers DO." "Oh, I couldn't not ____! What would people think? How would they manage without me?" etc. We often overestimate the extent to which others would be disappointed, inconvenienced, or emotionally traumatized by our limit-setting. It is often helpful to request a reality check on this. "So, listen, Linda I'm really feeling over-committed right now. What would happen if I were to bow
out this time?" "Hey I'm spending way too much time doing dishes. How about paper plates for dinner on school nights?" Though people who have become accustomed to your patterns of self-sacrifice might become confused, even upset, if you change the steps of the dance, they'll get over it if they really care about you.
Most of us make a lot of stuff up about what others really need. Really. Lighten up!
In addition to exploring the world of "no", let me suggest that at first you make just one self-care commitment and keep it. Start small, so you can be sure to be successful. It can help to find yourself a self-care buddy. (If you can't find a buddy, then hire one. My practice includes health coaching for a growing number of people who'd prefer to hire out than work solely with a friend.) Regardless of your personal goal, support makes it easier. Surely you
know someone who's struggling with similar issues? Your pact together does not need to resemble an Iron Maiden maybe it's just to get together on Friday afternoons to go for a walk, rain or shine.
Something really important happens when your body-spirit knows that you honor your promises you start to feel stronger inside, and that can inspire other, larger actions on your own behalf. It's important to learn that you can take a break for a while fifteen minutes will do (heck, even FIVE minutes!) on a regular basis and the world will not fall apart. You'll feel better, and you'll start to make room for yourself in your life. As my friend Carla (who is
very wise, and a nurse) says, "Anything can wait except CPR."