“How learning to say ‘no’ made me happier (and why it can for you, too)”

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Nicola Rachel Colyer
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In a society that equates busy with better, we are often so focused on meeting the demands of modern life that we forget to stop and take care of ourselves. But, what happens when it all becomes too much? Freelance journalist, Nicola Colyer, provides a candid insight into her journey to take control of her life with just one word: no.

A few years ago, I found myself sat on my bed on a Saturday evening battling with my hairdryer as tears streamed down my face. I’d done it again.

I was trying to get ready for my friend’s birthday party, but my body wasn’t having any of it. I’d pushed too hard and, in a bid not to let my friends down, I had ignored the warning signs…

In a world where juggling an overly-packed diary and surviving on limited sleep are considered markers of success, “yes” seems to be the only word. “Yes” to taking on another project at work despite already putting in more hours than you should, “yes” to drinks with your colleagues when all you want to do is go home for some Netflix and actual chill, “yes” to that party invitation when you really, really need some rest.

These days, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that if you’re not doing it all, you’re not doing enough. But while striving to do more and be better isn’t a bad thing in itself, we’re often doing so at the cost of our health and happiness.

As your typical, top-of-the-class, ceiling-pushing people-pleaser, I spent my whole life saying “yes”. It was a strategy that had paid off; I excelled in my studies, lived abroad, secured a job at a prestigious international law firm and travelled the world. I worked hard and played harder. Admittedly, I was usually exhausted but I didn’t want to miss out on a single thing, so I just kept going.

Things were flying (or so I thought) until I got sick whilst travelling. On my return I was due to start my new job at the law firm, kicking off the career that I had been working towards for the previous five years. As my start date loomed, I was still in pretty bad shape so I thought about deferring but I worried about what people would think if I told them I had to stop before I had even started. Besides, I’d worked so hard to get that far, so I threw myself into it regardless.

It didn’t end well. One afternoon as I was sat at my desk, the words on my screen started to blur and suddenly the whole room swayed out of focus. A few months later I was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME).

Suddenly, those extra hours at work, that family gathering in another city, that late-night phone call with a friend all became too much. As I was consumed by exhaustion I started to feel angry at the demands being put on my time, and resentful towards my friends and family for not understanding the impact that this was having on me. Spending time with the people I loved became an obstacle, anything that required my energy felt like a chore.

Stuck in a vicious tug-of-war between health and happiness, I knew that I was struggling to keep the pace but I also felt selfish and weak for needing to slow down. And, according to Geeta Sidhu-Robb, a Health and Lifestyle Coach whose clients include Gwyneth Paltrow, Georgia May Jagger and Poppy Delevingne, those feelings were only making it worse.

“If you continuously subsume your own needs it tends to lead to a rise in anger, bitterness and resentment,” she explains. “All of these toxic emotions throw the body out of its normal healthy automatic processes because the body thinks it is in danger.”

At the time, I blamed everything on the fact that I was ill; I was desperate to keep going, to keep achieving, so I assured myself that once I recovered, it would all be okay.

The difficulty though, was that I had been living at 110% for so long that I couldn’t see that my way of life was part of the problem.

“We have forgotten what it’s like to be truly rested,” explains Sam Wigan, Life Coach and Facilitator on Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global programme. “Exhaustion and overwhelm is the norm so we don’t even realise that we are under par.

“When you combine this with the pervasive culture of wearing overload as a badge of honour, the challenge is not so much spotting the warning signs as discovering what [being] truly productive and [purposeful] feels like.”

I knew that in order to do more than simply survive my life, something had to give, but I had no idea what. My doctor explained that in order for my body to heal, I needed to address my lifestyle; I had to slow down and take care of myself first and foremost. I knew he was right, I just didn’t know how to actually do it. I didn’t know how to say “no”.

Apparently, I’m not alone in this. Chartered Psychologist, Bijal Chheda-Varma explains: “Cultural and societal factors influence women to behave in a polite and agreeable manner (whereas boys are expected to be aggressive or assertive) leading to low assertiveness skills in women”. 

We need this assertiveness to enable us to say “no” and to stand up for our boundaries.

Whether it is ambition, fear of conflict, concern of letting others down or a persistent case of FOMO that drives us, saying “no” just isn’t the done thing. At best, we make excuses or cancel plans at the last minute but we rarely give ourselves permission to actively carve out time for ourselves and not to feel guilty about doing so.

Chheda-Varma notes that: “Women who are unable to exercise their assertive voices and eventually fall into patterns of self-sacrifice and guilt can [fall victim] to burnout and stress [which] leads to poor immune system, fatigue [and] illness, [including] depression and anxiety.”

My story was case in point and over time many of my friends found themselves in similar situations. One of my best friends spent her twenties giving her career her all, and her social life just as much, before being diagnosed with anxiety. Another put everything she had into climbing the professional ladder before being crippled by depression. Many others continued to ignore their own needs until they ended up burnt out and unhappy.

Even when facing a serious health condition, slowing down was easier said than done. Despite the best of intentions, I struggled to prioritise my own needs over those of the people around me until eventually my doctor recommended that I try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy; I had to learn how to say “no”.

It was a long journey but (spoiler alert) I eventually had it down. More than that, I became okay with saying “no” and putting myself first. My friends started to look at me as though I had acquired a supernatural gift, so rare is the woman who actually prioritises herself. My usual response was that I had to do it, I simply couldn’t go on as I was, but the truth is that we should all learn to say “no” to ensure that we get the best out of life. So, if you’re struggling to find balance and want to make a change, this is how I did it.

Set priorities

My first task was to make a list of my priorities, and then look at how everything I was doing served each of them. By weighing up everything that you do against an end goal, it becomes easier to see why sometimes you need to say “no”. Every time that you say “yes” to something that doesn’t fit in with your priorities, you are saying “no” to something that does.

Block out time

The next step was to consider how much time I needed to set aside each week to focus on those priorities before devising a set of rules around that, blocking out the time that I needed for myself. It didn’t necessarily mean spending time alone; I learnt to listen to what my mind and body needed and to act upon it. It might be that you need to spend time with a friend, or to take a yoga class, or to enjoy an evening on the sofa with a G&T; the important thing is to stick to it.

Tackle the guilt

In addition to getting used to this new routine, I also had to overcome the guilt that came with it. By taking more time for myself, I was less available to those around me and consequently, I constantly felt like a bad friend/girlfriend/daughter/employee. In the words of Jess Thomson, Director of Psychology at The Optimum Health Clinic: “Taking care of ourselves gets judged at best as boring and at worst as selfish and shameful.” However, as Thomson explains, we must remember that taking control allows us to choose the direction of our lives, rather than being swept along with the current.

“I never used to think it was a brave thing to do,” she remarks. “Now, I think it is one of the bravest things we, in our current society, can do because it forces us to stand up, demand more of ourselves and actually be responsible for our own happiness regardless of what society deems is successful.”

Explain yourself

When it came to saying “no” to those closest to me, it became much easier when I started by explaining my new boundaries and the reason behind them. Opening up to my friends and family about what I was trying to achieve helped them to understand why I wasn’t always available and for the most part they were supportive of that.

Communication expert and author Elizabeth Kuhnke notes that: “When you have strong personal boundaries that are clearly articulated, people respect you. Your confidence grows as you become clear about what you want.”

Be flexible

While my newfound ways were grounded in rules, we all know that rules are there to be broken. The key is to make a mindful decision rather than giving an automatic “yes”. Life Coach and Holistic Nutritionist, Pandora Paloma suggests thinking “in terms of energy, time and money. Everything you say “yes” to – how much of your time, energy and money are you going to have to give it. Is it worth it?”

In the end, learning to value my own needs and desires as much as I value those of others has not only given my body the time it needs to heal, but also the strength and skills to pursue my own path. I have stopped feeling resentful towards my friends and family and my relationships have actually improved. Realising that my definition of success had shifted, I changed careers to pursue my passion. It forced me to evaluate my life and make choices that make me happy.

Whether learning to say “no” encourages you to make a big change in your life, or just to set aside one hour a week for pure self-indulgence, it will help you to lead a more fulfilled life where you focus your time and energy where it matters most to you.

“It can be incredibly liberating to discover that it’s ok to say “no” and that often saying “no” actually serves the people making demands on you far better than the “yes,” remarks Wigan. “You actually become more available. Re-claiming leadership of your life by transforming chronic overwhelm is a critical factor for success and improving wellbeing. When you clarify what you actually want, learn to set clear boundaries, and practice saying no without guilt, you accomplish so much more.”

And who can argue with that?

Images: Nicola Colyer / Catherine Greenwood