~ Guest Writer, Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D ~
One of the first words we learn as infants is no.
If we do our job right, growing up we use no to set boundaries.
The toddler’s no translation would look like this: “Excuse me, madame, but when you insist that I share my toys with Susan you are disrespecting my sovereign right to control what is mine.”
If our caretakers do their job right they will respect our no most of the time because they recognize that in saying no we aren’t insulting them, we are defining our Selves.
Somewhere along the way, we learn to feel guilty saying no.
And that’s just the problem, isn’t it? Do men have the same issue with saying no? With exercising their freedom to refuse? These are honest questions. If anyone cares to leave a comment, it would be greatly appreciated.
Yes is so positive! So powerful! I re-read parts of Shonda Rhimes’s book, The Year of Yes. I love that whole story of saying yes to everything after her sister told her she was closed off to life because Shonda automatic said no to all requests left her isolated. What is wrong with me that my knee jerk reaction to all requests is to say yes?
Not long ago I found myself pretty damn depressed. I kept thinking that when this or that happened I’d start to feel more perky, more like my usual self. The milestones came and went. The vacations came and went. The achievements came and went. And still I was Not Happy.
Then I was reading about depression for work and came across the usual checklist of symptoms. This checklist of eighteen hallmark symptoms of depression is very well known to therapists. We pretty much have it memorized.
That day, though, going down the list was a revelation.
Change in appetite. Yeah, stress eating was the name of the game and I played it daily.
Changes in weight. Stress eating? Every day? Ha! My weight was up by a good ten pounds.
Changes in sleep. Not sleeping well at all. Disrupted all through the night. Waking up tired.
Fatigue. Yup. Dragging my ass through the day. Pushing, pushing, pushing.
Lack of interest in sex. Ugh.
Problems with concentration/focus. Huh?
Sad, numb, flat. Tearful. Irritable. Just ask my husband.
Avoidance/isolation. If I bothered to go to a party, I couldn’t leave fast enough.
This was all me. You only need like seven of these to be diagnosable. I had ALL of the symptoms! Eye opener.
I was depressed. Well, shit.
Did it matter that I’m a psychologist? No. Did it matter that this was not my first depression rodeo? No. This awful feeling of being encased in evil bubble wrap, not being able to reach my real self, not feeling in control over it, this feeling had a name. It had a treatment. I could do something about it. What a relief.
First I could give myself a break. I was sick. I had an illness. I knew what to do about living with illness. I wrote a fucking book about it. Start with being nice to yourself. You poor baby. It’s OK. We’re going to take care of you now.
Ever so slowly the healthy part of my brain got a better foothold. First I’d try the non-medication treatments that I recommend to my patients!
Say it out loud.
First, I told my family, my adult kids and my husband, what I had concluded. Bless them. I think with my husband there was some relief, too. He saw first hand how irritable I was. How I snapped at every. little. thing. He saw how tired I was all the damn time. He saw how I wasn’t myself. Since I live with him, his reaction was the most important. If he didn’t take me seriously I would feel really badly. But he quickly did and he became my most supportive friend.
I told him I was going to step up my aerobic exercise because cardio is scientifically proven to elevate and stabilize mood whether you’re dealing with depression or anxiety or both.
Therapy? If there was someone to see I’d see them but it’s hard for a therapist to find a therapist in their community to talk with. I thought of friends, talking more frankly with them, and I’ve been doing that which isn’t exactly a substitute, but it does help.
So here’s where it comes down to FREEDOM.
I believe my depression, (and I mean mine, because yours could be different, there are different reasons and ways a person may be depressed) was created from a malfunctioning survival reaction of my body to the stress I was imposing on it. It’s a bloody miracle I haven’t had a relapse of my chronic illness and for that I am grateful! But my depression was a biochemical reaction to too much coming at me everyday, all day long, for ages.
I was saying yes to everything and for me, it wasn’t good.
This is hard to write about because I love my work, and growing my practice is what I desire. But when I was depressed, it felt like hard labor. I was adding new projects, recruiting new people, incorporating new infrastructure, which is exciting, right? Until it wasn’t. And without warning, it wasn’t.
I was saying yes to everything, feeling terribly, oppressively guilty when I didn’t deliver fast enough, on the schedule I arbitrarily assigned to myself. The most crushing feeling which added to my depression so much, was the belief that I was letting people down. All kinds of people. Everyone in my life. I was letting them all down. They must think I’m awful because I am awful.
That day, when I did the depression check-list, I took a step back and looked at what I was doing day to day. It’s as if I flew up to about 10,000 feet to take a look at my life. What was I doing!?
Turns out I was doing about three full time jobs at the same time. I was working ALL THE TIME. I’d wake up at 5:00 and work until it was time to go meet my trainer and work out at 8am. Then I’d have breakfast, clean up and go to work, then come home, have dinner and open up my computer and work until I went to bed. From 5:00AM to 10:30PM more or less, I was working or thinking about working. I fooled myself into thinking the work I did at home wasn’t real work. Checking and responding to email wasn’t work. Catching up with social media and posting on my business pages and accounts wasn’t work.
Who was the boss here? Who got to decide when things got done, how and by whom? Why wasn’t the boss being a good, compassionate boss? When did she become this whip snapper?
I had freedom and I wasn’t using it.
I had the enormous privilege of choice yet I was acting like a prisoner with none.
I’m not saying my work caused my depression. I am saying that my recovery has a lot to do with letting that healthy part of my brain observe with kindness what was going on.
So I continued my recovery by using my freedom to say no. For my health’s sake, I had to admit some difficult things like, I needed to limit the number of patients I saw every week. It was unfair to everyone if I continued to take on new patients, and act as if that was the only part of my work. I needed to let people get better, extend the time between sessions if that’s what was indicated, and let them go when they were ready to fly solo.
Saying no to my associates and co-workers was hard, but I had to admit that giving them what they deserved in supervision and support was more than a one woman job. So I brought in a wonderful psychologist to give another leg up in clinical oversight.
Saying no to multitasking. I focused on getting one project done before moving on to the next. Why hadn’t I seen that before? Multitasking is for the birds. It literally can make you looney tunes. Singular, mono-tasking gets things done. Checking major projects off the To Do list is orgasmic!
Every time I say no to one thing it means saying yes to something else. I may not even know what that is. But, guess what? The Universe knows. I totally believe that the Universe knows when you are ready for the good stuff it has in store for you.
Ever so slowly but in the right direction, my work load became more manageable. My schedule now has big, glorious vistas of time in it where I can breathe deeply and fully.
It’s like coming out of a dark, claustrophobic cave and stepping into an open, sunlit meadow.
Freedom to Choose No! …Thank you.
Whenever you are doing something and someone says you are so wonderful for doing that thing and you respond “I have no choice.” STOP. You do have a choice. You choose to show up. You choose to be there. You choose to fight. You choose to sacrifice. All of it. We choose every day to be there or not.
For now we have the freedom to choose what we choose and we need to be careful with that power. The power to be able to choose is fraught. It has great responsibility. In our privileged society even more so.
I have the privilege to say no to requests to partake in big, important projects. I need to resist the flattery of being asked, of being told, I am the only one who can do it. That is bullshit. There are others who can take those responsibilities, while I have a responsibility to ME, to my family, those I love, who love me. There is only one me, and I know that if I don’t take care of myself others will feel the burden, that is not fair to anyone.
Our hierarchy of self-care is not linear, it’s more organic. Like the solar system. In the center, at its core is you. Very closely, like where Mercury is, is our partner in life, a mate, a spouse, who has pledged to live through all the ups and downs of life with us. Then Venus might be the kids. Where the Earth is, you’ve got friends and other family. And on and on.
When most of our self-care choices primarily target Jupiter or even Neptune, instead of You, Venus or Mercury, we’re in trouble.
My body is telling me, please, say no, so that you have the time and energy to take care of yourself, so that you can be strong for the thing that only you can do. Like love your husband. Your daughter. Your son. Your Self. Only you have the freedom to do that in the way that you do.
Here is our permission slip:
It’s OK to use our freedom to say no. All animals, and most people, will understand. They will be okay, and, most importantly, so will we.
Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D
Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D. is a wife, mom to two adults and one horse, psychologist and writer who lives in Western New York where it’s cool to wear a cape and tall boots every day.
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Thanks I am a mother and very busy! This helped me alot!
Thank you for your wise words, Dr. Aletta.
I too have been a yes person for most of my life. I know for me it’s an ego thing. Always wanting to be liked and get the approval of others.
Interesting that when I started saying no, people weren’t used to it and actually did treat me differently. Apparently if I wasn’t dropping everything for their goals, I was no longer being supportive.
I’ve often wondered why it was so easy for others to say no to me. Turns out it was because I was constantly saying no to myself.
I have a friend who often reminds me that no is a complete sentence.
I appreciate you reminding me of that.