Whether it’s promising to go to a friend’s birthday drinks when you really crave a night on the couch or taking on more responsibility at work without a pay rise, having “yes” programed as your default response can put you on a fast-track to being snowed under.
“Women have so many identities – we’re expected to be sex goddesses, girlfriends, best friends, mothers, career women and fitness freaks,” explains psychologist and yoga teacher Melissa Podmore. There aren’t enough hours in the day to be perfect at all of these things, all the time, so it’s little wonder so many of us are feeling overwhelmed. “If we’re overloading ourselves with responsibilities that are impacting on our mental and physical energy, then nothing’s going to feel satisfying,” Podmore says.
The good news is that learning to use the simple syllable “no” wisely and appropriately can free up your timetable and headspace for the people and things you truly love.
Why we have so much difficulty saying ‘no’
While over-committing is by no means a female-only problem, saying “no” does seem to be a particular challenge for women. “Girls are often conditioned to be ‘good little girls’ who are very agreeable,” Podmore explains. “It’s a conditioning pattern that a lot of women act out in their adult life.”
How to identify if you’re saying yes too much
This sort of deep, subconscious programing can be difficult to identify, but realising you’re in the habit of saying yes when you really want to say no is the first step. Often our bodies send us messages before we consciously catch up, so be alert for feelings of tension. “Is there some kind of contraction or constriction in your body that makes you feel overwhelmed?” Podmore queries. “Notice if you can connect that with the thought of guilt or self-doubt about saying no to something you don’t want to do.”
On top of that, look for external cues, such as a bulging calendar or endless to-do list that could imply that you’re taking too much on. “The key to change is awareness that you are saying yes more often when you really want to say no,” explains psychologist Patrea O’Donoghue (positivepsychologystrategies.com.au). “You might have commitments at home but you’re saying yes anyway, knowing that it’s going to eat into your plans or that you’re going to have to change or cancel those plans entirely.”
Determine the impact of saying ‘no’
By our very nature, humans like to belong – and often saying yes is a biological attempt to strengthen ties with those around us. “Sometimes if we say no or stand up for ourselves, we risk being rejected if we don’t fit into what other people are wanting,” O’Donoghue says. “Some people develop a need to please and end up subverting their own needs for those of others.”
The question is whether saying no will really be that disastrous – and a good tool for determining that is to consider the “10, 10, 10, 10” rule. “How are you likely to think about this in 10 minutes’ time, 10 weeks’ time, 10 months’ time and 10 years’ time?” O’Donoghue asks. “Sometimes that perspective on things can help us make decisions on when to say no.”
So if you’re considering sacrificing a yoga class for de-stressing after a hectic work week because an acquaintance has asked you to birthday drinks, then consider how important she will be in your life in future. But if it’s your boss who has invited you out, then you might sacrifice the yoga class for some networking that could pay career dividends in time. “If it’s a bigger goal, it may be worth foregoing certain pleasures,” O’Donoghue says.
Of course, social connections contribute to our wellbeing, so be discerning about when you say “no” to catch-ups. “If you’re going out every night of the week, then you’re probably overdoing it,” O’Donoghue says. “But if you don’t get many options to socialise and you’re finding you’re saying no, then that’s probably not a healthy balance.”
Commit to giving yourself more time
Starting off with some scheduled “me time” can be a good start. Commit to yourself with the vigour you usually reserve for others. “Some people like that because it gives them a bit of a breather,” Podmore says. “It’s really nice to say, ‘I’ve planned this all week and I’m going to honour myself and commit to this.’” And even if those around you seem momentarily put out, chances are, you’re doing them a favour. “It can start a bit of a trend when the women around you hear how healthy that is,” Podmore says. “It gives them permission to do the same.”
Your family or housemates will reap the benefits, too. “Whenever our stressors get activated, we usually either get overwhelmed or become overwhelming,” Podmore says. “People around us are either going to feel like we’re draining them because we’re really anxious or depleted, or we will be emotionally unavailable to them.”
It can take a lot of courage to say no, but with a bit of practice it becomes easier. “Being honest doesn’t necessarily mean being tactless,” O’Donoghue says. “It means being clear and open, while still being respectful.”
FOMO is not your friend!
Saying no to an event does come with a risk of FOMO (fear of missing out), but O’Donoghue says that if you’ve really tuned in to yourself and how you are feeling, then you’ll know you’ve made the right decision.
“We need to realise that there are only 24 hours in the day and only so many things that we can physically and mentally attend to,” O’Donoghue says. Switching off your social media when you have opted out of something can be a good way to avoid FOMO. “Social media has put so much more pressure on us because it’s given visibility to everyone’s social lives, which previously were quite selective and private,” Podmore says. “If there is anxiety coming up when you’re looking at Facebook and comparing yourself to somebody else’s social life, then that’s not helpful for you.”