Learning How to Say “No”

By Jorie

Most of my life I was what I’ve referred to as a “doormat,” which is to say I allowed people to walk all over me, take advantage of me, and otherwise not speak up when I really needed to.

This attitude isn’t beneficial to anyone, but it’s especially damaging to someone with health conditions that have the potential to exacerbate when they don’t say “no.” It’s hard to decline when others often don’t understand your need to decline, but it’s a vital part of keeping your health in check.

My Fear of “No”

Saying “no” to a dinner date, saying “no” to hanging out with friends, saying “no” to a day out shopping: these are all activities that, truthfully, I don’t want to say “no” to, but sometimes it must be done. To the normal, healthy person each of these activities seem fairly harmless, but in my world they can be a massive trigger waiting to happen, leaving me laid up for the next day to several days, depending on how severely triggered I was in that moment.

I used to be one of those individuals who felt SO bad if I told people no. I don’t say no frequently to anything even now, whether it’s something I want to do or not, simply because I don’t like hurting someone else’s feelings. But I’ve come to realize, especially in the last 5 years, that it’s imperative to my well being that I say no when I feel I truly need to. It’s a big deal when it becomes a gamble with my health.

I’ve had to say no to a lot of things I didn’t want to over the years starting in early teenhood, things that my peers were doing without a care in the world, things other people would look at as a fun hobby or day out. It was especially hard in those days, when you’re “too young to be sick,” and I ended up paying for it time and time again.

“You can’t sit in the house all day; getting out will do you good.”

“If you’d just be more optimistic, you’d be fine. You’re psyching yourself into this.”

“Just take some medicine before you go, you’re being so dramatic.”

Those phrases above are all lines I had to hear as a teen (who am I kidding, I still hear them today too), and it didn’t end there. It became extremely overwhelming for me to balance having fun with listening to my body’s cries for help. My triggers were all over the map (as they still are today), and putting my health in jeopardy just to have a good time was a mistake I made time and time again. And it was all because I didn’t have the guts to say “no.”

I’m not sure where my fear of “no” came from. The inability to say no is psychologically known as a form of passive-aggression and often stems from a fear of rejection. For me it is often the anxiety of the unknown—that this person I’m rejecting might think less of me if I tell them no to something they want or are anticipating. I don’t want to be the person to let my loved one down, do I? I can’t be responsible for their disappointment, I used to tell myself.

Ultimately, that view was damaging to my mental health and I finally realized it had to change.

Why “No” is So Important

You may be familiar with the blog Zen Habits and the man behind it, Leo Babauta. Zen Habits has been a favorite of mine since my high school days, and is a great resource for anyone looking for tips on how to be more mindful.

One of my favorite articles he has written touches on the art of saying no:Say no so you can say yes.

It’s as simple as that. Saying no leads to the ability to say yes more often, with more confidence. Saying no gives you the power to feel like your yes means more and is coming from a place of truth rather than a place of obligation.

We associate “no” with negativity, disappointment, maybe even anger. The word “yes” feels positive, hopeful, and happy for us. Each situation may differ, but this is true most of the time. So when we are forced to say no, we feel that we are letting someone down. Really, the only person we are letting down is ourselves by not allowing ourselves the room for honesty.

Saying no does not have anything to do with the value of your self-worth, your kindness toward others, or anything in between. In fact, you will more than likely be viewed as a stronger, more self-aware individual when you are finally able to put power behind your no’s. People respect the fact that you can politely say no–it means you are open and truthful, able to remain invested in yourself, and in this case, your health. That’s admirable.

In regard to health, saying no is particularly critical because at some point we have to learn how to determine our limitations. Despite our feelings on the matter, we migraineurs can be fragile creatures. Knowing what we can and can’t do, and subsequently asserting those limitations, helps us set healthy boundaries in our lives to lessen the possibility of triggering attacks.

Sometimes it’s Worth it to Say “Yes”

Regardless of how much we walk on glass, there will come a day when we break the rules on purpose while living with a chronic illness. Yes, there are days when I feel horrendous but I push forward because either I have to, or because I really want to–maybe there’s a deadline I need to meet, maybe there’s an exciting event that I can’t pass up. Whatever it is, there are definitely times where saying yes, even when you know it’s not quite good for you, is worth it.

It’s up to you to determine when that’s appropriate. And more importantly, you can’t beat yourself up about it or feel guilty when you do say yes, knowing you’ll pay for it later.

We migraineurs still have a life to live. We cannot stay holed up in our dark rooms for the rest of our lives, waiting for pain to fade away, nausea to subside, and brain fog to disperse. Sometimes we just have to take on the world, migraine and all.

So when is it a good time to say yes?

Balance the pros against the cons. Will saying yes be an opportunity for achievement? Will saying yes ultimately be worth possible suffering later? Here’s a way I like to look at it, and I’ll use a hypothetical situation as an example:

You are invited to go shopping with a friend who also wants to stop and get drinks later. It’s a hot day, nearing 100 degrees. The humidity is high and the sun is bright. You’ll be outside most of the day, as this is an outdoor mall. Do you say yes? Or no?

In this situation, I weighed my pros and cons.

The pros: I’m spending time with my friend who I haven’t seen in awhile. I have a chance to buy something I may need or want. This will get me out of the house and on my feet with a little light exercise. Luckily, I have another day off tomorrow to rest.

The cons: The weather is very triggering with heat, bright sunlight, and humidity. I can’t drink alcohol as it is a major trigger for me. Being on my feet all day can exhaust me, easily leading to a migraine.

There are a few ways around these situations, though, making yes an easier decision to settle on. What are some ways you can combat the cons?

In this situation, I can work against my cons by wearing sunglasses, drinking lots of water, taking small breaks throughout the day, and avoiding the alcohol.

Ultimately, in this example, I would choose to say yes after I fully analyzed the situation. Don’t feel like you need to make your choice until you have gone through this process. It is imperative to your health and will save you a lot of hurting later if you just listen to your body, analyze your situation, and make the best choice based on the two.

How to Say “No”

1. Practice makes perfect. Say no to yourself more often. Reinforce your no’s when you say them to other people. Don’t take it back. Just keep saying no, no, no. Eventually it will become a comfortable word in your vocabulary, and you’ll have an easier time saying it when faced with a more difficult situation.

2. Stop saying sorry. That goes for giving excuses, too. Don’t be weak in your no. Saying sorry might sound polite, but it’s not getting you anywhere. Use sorry only when it’s actually appropriate. When your no is warranted, no apology is necessary.

3. Prioritize. What’s most important to you? For a migraineur, this list can be hard one to make because we have so many things we miss out on. It’s essential for you to decide what comes first above all else (aside from your health, of course). Is it work? Family? Hobbies? Chores? Decide, and stick with it.

4. Be aware of and value your time. Keeping a balance of our time can be hard for those of us living with health conditions. Our time is a little more restricted due to our need to fulfill certain health responsibilities. Know what time you have, and use that when considering your “yes” or “no” response.

5. Use the “it’s not you, it’s me” approach. Because honestly, it is you, most of the time. You and your health come first. Just be up front about that.

6. Keep the door open. If you know that someone will ask something of you, go ahead and be preemptive. Let them know your stance. If you’re willing to postpone a date, say so. This leaves the door open so it’s not quite saying no, but rather “not now.”

7. …But don’t beat around the bush. If you’re not interested or think you’ll never be able to fulfill something, just say so. Don’t lead someone on to make him or her believe you will do it later. You know your body best, and if this is something out of your health comfort zone, then politely state that.

Be a voice for your health and wellbeing–say no out of strength, instead of saying yes out of weakness.



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