Managing your mental health: The power of saying no

Mental health blogger Fiona Kennedy discusses how in the interest of caring for ourselves, we can't be afraid to say no

Maybe you’ve heard of the power of now, the value of living completely in the present moment.  I’ve been thinking on another powerful word this last while – the power of no.

No, I’m not available that day.

No, I can’t help with that.

No, I can’t help you.

It’s a tiny word, ‘no’, yet carries remarkable weight. A lot of us are terrified of it, both of using it, and of hearing it in response to something we need. Why is that? Why do we feel such compulsion to always say yes to whatever is asked of us?

It's not you, it's me

None of the above statements sound particularly kind or generous, and they are among my least favourite things to say. I love to help. I love to be the one that people turn to, the listener, the fixer, and I know quite a few of these people as well. Knowing I’ve contributed to making someone feel better gives me a warm glow inside that’s almost addictive. Nine times out of ten, saying yes is absolutely fine and the right thing to do but what about when it comes at the detriment of our own needs, our own energy, or worse, our own sense of self?

We can get so caught up in a moment. Many, many times in the course of my life I have lost sight of myself and what I need in my efforts to keep someone else happy, be that in being available when they need help, or stepping up to take something on when no one else would. One of the worst feelings in the world for me is knowing I have let someone down, regardless of how valid the reason for that disappointment.

There’s a problem with that intense level of seeming selflessness though. Our energy is far from infinite, and our capacity to cope with life and its myriad challenges needs to be nurtured. If we are always giving of ourselves, there’s nothing left when we are the person who most needs our own help. This is where that tiny but most powerful of words comes in.

We have got to put ourselves first

We’ve all heard the safety drill on a plane – get your own mask sorted first before you try to help anyone else.  Why?  Because you’ll be bugger all use to anyone if you can’t breathe and fall unconscious!! I realise this is an extreme and likely clichéd example, but like most of these things, it’s a cliché for a reason. We cannot help anyone else when we’re running on empty, and worse, we cannot help ourselves.  To add insult to injury, when we end up so depleted that we cannot help ourselves, it’s a foregone conclusion that will have a negative impact on those around us as well.

There are limits to what we can do. We see someone suffering, we want to make that suffering go away. It’s a natural, human response. But for that to really work, the person in need of help must  be willing to take responsibility for the changes that will bring an end to their suffering, whatever form it may take. There are so many distractions in our world, so many ways in which we avoid thinking about the more painful aspects of what we truly need.  But the longer we hide from problems, the longer we ignore them... that story will never end well.

Sometimes we’re unable to say no because the act of helping distracts us from what needs fixing in our own lives.  Again, the plane analogy works. Everything we avoid and ignore, no matter how noble the reason, will eventually catch up with us. I say this with absolute certainty because it’s something I’ve experienced time and time again. 

We need to give our minds room to breathe, to reflect on our experiences, to learn from them.  If we don’t?  The same mistakes will be repeated over and over again.  The same dramas will unfold, and change will never happen. 

'Now' and 'no'

I didn’t realise when I started writing that those two words, now and no, could have such a relationship with each other. But without occasionally saying no, we leave little chance for ourselves to experience now. We need to recognise that we are the only person we are constantly with, constantly listening to. We need to treat ourselves with the same compassion and respect as we would those closest to us, and for that to happen, it means occasionally saying no to those very people. I’m still struggling with this. I’m still learning. But I’m getting there.