No Is A Complete Sentence
As someone who has been in therapy, as well as a 12-step program of recovery for several years, self care has been important in my life to get me from a place of emotional wasteland to a place of functionally present well-being. Self care has shown up in my life in simple ways even though sometimes they feel impossible; making sure I get food in me, showering, watching TV, playing video games, taking time for myself, and of course, a bubble bath are all ways I see to my own needs. Bubble baths, frankly, don’t really do much for me. Self care sometimes means really delving into what I’m feeling and being willing to share that with a partner to be able to investigate what it is I need. It’s difficult to be self-aware consistently; to know what it is that will provide me with the most comfort and compassion in a moment of anxiety or fear. Still, in the vast realm of self care activities, one of the hardest, one of the most uncomfortable, and one of the most vital tools I have learned to use in my self care toolbox has been to learn how to set and maintain boundaries.
Now, I say this as a person who has by no means mastered this skill. Saying no was not something I was taught as a young person. I was taught that it’s impolite, selfish, and wrong to say no, especially to an elder or someone who I should respect. I was not taught respect for or unilateral control over my body, mind, or emotions, and I was often verbally bullied into doing things because I had a host of relatives who told me I was being a spoil sport for not wanting to do whatever it was they wanted me to do. I was taught that to put myself first was rude and unladylike; I was to bow to the whims of my aunts, uncles, parents, sibling, cousins, and ultimately, my own husband that it was assumed I would someday land. My own needs were to always be secondary.
This was an inherently problematic way of trying to maneuver through the world. I developed some very unhealthy patterns of codependence to control and manipulate the people around me. If I was not taking care of myself, that meant I had to take care of others in the hope that they would, in turn, care for me. This barter system was, of course, a terrible failure by the end of every relationship. None of my partners knew what I needed because it was something I couldn’t get from them anyway. I’m no self-love guru, but allowing myself to make my own decisions about what I need was an excellent place to start. In these past relationships, love was a commodity in the hopes that my love interest would be inspired by my care so that they would learn how to make my coffee, how to make me orgasm, and how to make me happy. I think there was one who got the coffee right.
So when I started on the path of “changing every damn thing in my life because these behaviors are obviously NOT working,” I came across the path of self care and thought, “This is brilliant! I can take care of myself! Hooray!” Once I started understanding that this also meant being exclusively accountable for my own behavior, communicating my needs even through fear of rejection, and being the one that ultimately is responsible for my own well-being, I was thinking, “This is terrible! Someone else should do it for me!” Nonetheless, I kept trying.
But the worst, even still, is setting boundaries and saying no. Always. The worst.
There are a whole host of reasons that pop into my head: I’m being unreasonable putting myself before someone else’s needs. People are relying on me. What if everything falls apart and it’s all my fault? What if something happens to them and it’s because I didn’t take care of them adequately? I could hurt the other person’s feelings.
Part of learning to say no has been to acknowledge that the world will continue to turn without me. People have others to rely on (and if they don’t, perhaps they need to work on their own self care and network of emotional support). I have to remember that I can’t be responsible for someone else’s feelings or actions. I am not so powerful that someone else’s life will be destroyed if I don’t go to that meeting or get that thing filed on time. Truly the world keeps spinning, and I am able to do more if I take care of myself first.
An example of this would be my job. I love my job. It is truly something that I believe I was meant to do. But it is hard on my body, and it is a long commute, and sometimes I just feel like I can’t. So I have learned (after a six-day work week followed by one day off and another five-day work week) that I need to schedule sufficient time off for myself in order to be functional physically as well as not be a mean bitch because I haven’t given myself enough down time. I get constant emails from my boss and coworkers asking for people to fill in, and although there have been a few times I have felt okay doing it, I usually say no. I spend my days off spending time by myself, with one of my partners, doing errands, doing nothing. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. I don’t have to justify it to anyone.
Another big stumbling block for me is helping others. I like helping. I like helping at work and I like helping my friends. I believe that helping gives me a wonderful emotional boost that many other activities do not. But if I’m in an emotionally drained space, no amount of helping is going to make me feel better. It will make me resentful and angry, and that is then not helping. This is when setting a boundary of, “No, unfortunately I will not be able to help you move on Saturday” feels almost impossible. I have nothing planned on Saturday, but I have nothing planned because I need nothing planned. Doing-nothing days are part of my self care, and setting a boundary around that is hard because my brain says, “If you really cared about your friend, you would help them move because you literally have nothing else to do that day.” The truth, though, is that I can care about them and still not help them move. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Boundaries are sometimes even bigger than saying no, and I am currently working on the next step of asking for what I want. I am in constant fear that I will offend one partner if I want to spend time with the other and I will hurt them, and if I hurt them then I am a terrible person. Allowing them to have their own feelings and taking them into account but not making a decision solely because of their feelings is a tough one I am still trying to wrangle with.
Knowing that my friends, family, and partners love me because of who I am and not what they can get out of me has been a tough one to assimilate. If I stop having sex as often with a partner, they’ll leave! My friends won’t ask me to do things with them if I don’t ply them with gifts and compliments! My family won’t love me unless I do what they want! My asshole of a brain assaults me with these thoughts constantly. I have learned to argue with it sometimes, and sometimes to just gently move it to the side and do the difficult task of saying no anyway and trusting that I am worthy of my friends and family even if I do not hustle for their affection.
As with everything, practicing boundary-setting and saying no gets a little bit easier as I continue to do it. It still sucks a lot and feels yucky, but the more I do it, the more I believe I actually am worth it. I do not have to hustle. Love is not an economy, as my dear friend Amelia says. I am starting to believe she’s right.