This post is part 1 of a 2-part series I wrote about learning how to manage and communicate my expectations of myself. I hope you enjoy and find it relatable!
I’m sure you all are aware of the facet of the current mental-health movement centered around saying “no” when you don’t feel like you’re mentally able to handle something. Saying “no” isn’t always easy. There’s a lot of societal pressure to say “yes” to things so that you aren’t letting people down, aren’t being confrontational, don’t seem too sensitive, are being social enough to fit in with a group…the list goes on and on. Hell, we even have an acronym for Fear of Missing Out!
For me, saying “no” has mostly involved realizing that I am now an adult and can make my own decisions. I remember my first time visiting home from college. I told my parents that I didn’t want to go out to dinner with my extended family because I was too tired. When I timidly told them that I’d prefer to stay home, I was shocked to hear that I could choose to stay home and relax for the night instead of going out to be with my family. I needed a mental health night to just chill by myself, and I was glad that I was able to articulate that as well as take the time I needed. Since learning that I have the power to make my own choices, I’ve been working on saying “no” to the things that I don’t have the energy for.
Another important aspect of saying “no” for me has been self-awareness. In order to know how much I can handle in any given amount of time, I needed to find out how much was too much. This wasn’t particularly challenging for me, considering my propensity for taking on WAY too many projects at once. When committing to something, I try to use previous experience to see how many days I can hustle without rest and how much energy I’ll need for any given activity. Everyone is different in this area, too. What might be too much for me isn’t too much for someone else. I’ve had to learn in my journey towards becoming more empathetic that the amount of things that any one person can handle is not universal. This not only means that I need to be understanding of friends who need more alone time, but I also need to surround myself with people who are understanding of me and my energy. I’m still working on learning exactly how much downtime I need in order to not feel overwhelmed, and I’m trying my best not to commit to too much.
When I interviewed at graduate schools, I was very careful with my energy. They always had back-to-back optional events for the interviewees throughout the process, and I tried to figure out exactly how many activities I could handle and how many I should skip. Plenty of nights were spent home alone with just my host, and honestly, those nights were more fun to me than hanging out with a big group. I was grateful to just spend the time getting to know my host really well and conserving my energy for my interviews. Don’t get me wrong. By my third school visit, I was crying on the phone with my mom that I wanted to be home, but without recognizing that I needed some me time and to say “no” to some of the events, I would have burnt out much sooner.
I’m also learning how to say “no” to anything that I know deep down I won’t actually want to do anyway. I’ve spent so many years agreeing to things that I knew I didn’t want to do because I thought I could convince myself when the time came that I would actually want to do them. I do the same thing when I am presented with opportunities to take on more projects. Not only do I not have time to do all the things, but there are some things that I just don’t want to do. The relentlessly ambitious Renata may want to try to do everything that looks good on a resume and will teach her new skills, but she just literally can’t. Beyond physical limitations, I don’t even want to do all of the things. Even if there’s an experience that would teach me something new, I may just not enjoy it, and that’s okay. In college, I became the president of a club because I thought it would look good on my resume, not because I actually wanted to do it. I hated it and sucked at it because it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I’d rather be upfront and tell someone that I don’t want to do something or just decide to bypass opportunities right off the bat instead of bailing or hating my life, but that wasn’t possible until I learned how to be comfortable saying “no.” I consider it to be Marie Kondo-ing my life in a way, but instead of clearing out the stuff that that doesn’t bring me joy, I’m clearing out the activities that don’t bring me joy.
When it comes to my eating habits, I’m learning to say “no” when I don’t want to eat something, even if I’m expected to. While I’m not nearly as picky as I was as a child, I still dislike a lot of foods, and I don’t always want to eat what is available to me. I know that I can’t skip meals and go hungry, but I also need to remember that I should never feel forced to put something into my body that I don’t want or that will make me sick later. This has been very difficult for me, but it has also been a very important step in recognizing my personal autonomy. My dietitian Kelsey taught me to open my eyes and realize that I shouldn’t restrict what I eat and enjoy what I want when I want, but the flipside to this lesson is to not eat anything that I don’t want to eat. And I’m just so sick of the acid reflux that I can get by eating what I’m told. Literally.
Unfortunately, we’re surrounded by a lot of pressure to say “yes” in many aspects of our lives. Even at work, where the pressure is highest to overachieve and be the best, I’m learning how to say “no.” Although it’s not always plausible to say “no” to my bosses, I strive to be as open as possible about how many projects I have going on and how much time they will take. I let them know of realistic timelines and if I don’t believe that I can meet deadlines. Saying “no” is an integral part of managing expectations, even in the office.
As someone who says “yes” to just about everything and spends a lot of energy making everyone else comfortable, learning to say “no” has not been the easiest thing for me. There are still plenty of times that I make too many plans in one week or agree to do something that I know I’ll bail on. The important thing is that I’m getting to know myself better and understand what my personal limits are. Knowing your limits and being able to effectively communicate them is the only way to really master the use of the word “no.”
So don’t ask me to go see the next horror film with you or do any sort of overnight activity or invite me to go out when I haven’t had any downtime in 2 weeks. I’m going to tell you “no.”
Photography by my talented fiancé. You can find him on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/hope_grows_here/