You’ve heard all the buzz about self-care lately or maybe you read my step-by-step guide to creating a self-care routine and you’ve thought, that sounds great. I’m ready to buy in. All the cool kids are doing it. And frankly, it sounds like something you need. Somehow you always find yourself taking care of your own responsibilities as well as others. Your sister who you love, but let’s face it, she’s a hot mess and always needs a bailout. Your lazy coworker who can never seem to figure it out. Your BFF who is always mid-crisis and needs a late night vent session. And you end up exhausted with no one to take care of you. That’s because taking care of you is actually your responsibility and you’ve neglected that by putting everyone else first.
But you want to be the dependable one. You need people to like you. You don’t want to be selfish and so whenever someone asks for something, your automatic response, is “Sure, I’d love to!” Even if that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Even if it means you start resenting your friends and family and you put your own mental health at risk. Even if it means that majority of your to-do list fills you up with dread.
So now, you’ve finally caved and decided it’s time for some good ol’ self-care. You google it. There are a bazillion results. You click on a couple of articles and convince yourself you’ll start yoga next week.
But for now you think, I’ll just go with the quintessential self-care ritual – a bath. You go to Lush, pick out the perfect bath bomb. You stop at Specs on the way to home to pick a good bottle of wine for the occasion. It’s basically date night for yourself. It’s self-care night and the bathtub is calling your name. The stage is set, you’ve dropped in your bath bomb. You relax in the tub while you down your glass of wine. Mission accomplished. You pat yourself on the back, head to bed where you turn off the light and scroll through Instagram until you’re eyelids won’t stay open any longer. You wake up the next morning, start your day as stressed as always, and you think, self-care for mental health is bullshit.
Here’s the hard truth. We often resort to some pitiful version of self-care to compensate for much larger woes in our lives. Often what leads you to google “how to practice self-care” is a sense of feeling like you’re completely overextended and overwhelmed and you’re looking for a quick fix. But the truth is, self-care isn’t what you think. It’s not always something you do in a moment of acute anxiety about the mountain of tasks that lie ahead of you. It’s what you practice in your day to day life that prevents those moments of chaos. But you don’t need to do yoga daily, meditate 3 times a day, hop on one foot, and drink a green juice to practice good self-care. It’s entirely possible to live a life that you enjoy, have a schedule filled primarily with things that fill you up rather than wear you down when you master the art of saying no as your primary method of self-care for your mental health.
Why your current self-care routine isn’t helping your mental health
You’ve probably come across someone you know, like, or trust talking about self-care and mental health. Maybe it’s someone you follow on Instagram, or maybe you heard about it on a podcast, and you’ve done some googling. One of the first results I see when I google self-care is an article with 45 simple self-care practices. It’s overwhelming. And sure, you can try out a few things on the list and see what helps and what doesn’t. Actually, I encourage that. It’s awesome to have several tools on hand so that you can make self-care a habit. But I’m getting at the heart of why committing to a gratitude journal, while helpful, might not be the magic bullet you were hoping for.
We live in a culture where being busy is like some sort of badge of honor. It’s like if your answer to the common question, “how are things going?” isn’t “Things are good…super busy, but good!” you’re some sort of alien.
All the self-care in the world won’t help your mental health if it’s just another chore on your already jam-packed to-do list. And if you’re someone who feels constantly overcommitted, overwhelmed, consumed by the dread of the tasks that have to be crossed off, 10 minutes of daily yoga isn’t going to change that.
So what’s really going on?
If you’re always feeling like you’re too busy to do the things you really want to do for yourself, it could be because you’re a people pleaser who finds it hard to say no. You might find that your automatic response to someone asking for a favor is yes. And often you find yourself committing to things you really don’t want to do and at the expense of your overall happiness. You hear a request that sounds like torture, but your answer is always yes with a smile.
And what’s worse is that because of your pattern of saying yes, you’re the first one people think of when they need a favor that no one actually wants to do. Like the dreaded, can you help me move?
When people pleasing starts to take a toll on your mental health
Filling up your calendar with tasks and activities that actually make you want to gouge your eyes out isn’t your destiny. But saying yes when you want to say no, creates that kind of lifestyle. How you spend your time can certainly be a reflection on your values. But chances are that if you’re nodding along while you read, it’s not that way just yet.
You might believe that if you start saying no, people will like you less and that thought can be uncomfortable. But the truth is that if people are only hanging around you because of what you do for them and not for who you are, you’re probably hanging with the wrong crowd anyway.
Right now, when you immediately say yes, there’s a moment of relief followed by that “oh shit” moment when you realize what you’ve just said yes to. Suddenly, that relief turns to dread and it consumes you until the thing you’ve promised is over.
But what if we flipped that process on its head. Momentarily, you feel uncomfortable, worried, afraid of sounding like a selfish brat, but then you say no, followed by lasting relief.
When you learn to say no to the things you don’t want to do, people around you will learn to respect your values. You might actually find that as you’re consistent, you might hear fewer requests for things you don’t want to do.
The greatest form of self-care for benefiting your mental health is making your needs and wants a priority. Carefully choosing how you spend your time so that you can live in accordance with your values is entirely possible when you learn to say no with grace and say yes in a way that serves both you and the people who are important to you. Keep reading to find out how. Your mental health depends on it!
Why saying no is essential to your mental health
Saying no to things that aren’t priorities lets you say yes to things that truly are important to you. Do you ever find yourself wishing you could spend more time with your partner or family? Wishing you could pick that hobby back up that you loved, but let fall by the wayside because there just wasn’t enough time? Maybe you’d love to take that trip you’ve been putting off for years, but every time you’re ready to pull the trigger, someone you know is short on rent and needs your help. The habit of always putting other’s needs ahead of your own may sound nice, but it sends the message to you and the people around you that you are not important. And that is the opposite of taking care of you and your mental health.
How to say “no” in 4 steps
So now you know the why and hopefully my people-pleasers are with me here and have bought in. After all, why wouldn’t you want to improve your well-being and overall mental health? If you’re thinking this all sounds great, Erika, but how do I do this? Don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging. As a recovering people-pleaser myself, I know that saying no isn’t always as easy as it seems.
Prerequisite: Define your values
This isn’t the prologue of a book. Don’t skip this step! It’s important that you take a minute for some introspection and determine what is most important for you to live a life that is meaningful and enjoyable. This may seem like a big, deep question, and in some ways it kind of is, but in other ways, it’s pretty simple. Also know, that this doesn’t have to be it forever, just for now.
What exactly am I talking about? I’m going to give you an example that many of you people-pleasers will relate to. My primary value of the moment is service. You might be thinking that means I’m embarking on a year of yes, in order to serve everyone, but that’s not true. I want to be of service in my business. For now, I want to be of service through my work as a therapist and in my business. That’s why I’m writing this blog post and why you’ll see me sharing about it on social media. But in order to be able to do this, I have to say no to some other things like a weekly social hour disguised as a coworking call.
Another example is valuing being present with loved ones. That means saying yes to invitations from people you really care about, but saying no to commitments that work against that goal – that committee your boss wants you to head that will surely mean you stay later at work. It also means ignoring those pesky, seemingly urgent phone notifications while you’re spending time with your boo.
So go ahead and take a minute to figure out what your value of the moment is. This can be your value or intention of the day, week, month, or year. Remember, you can reevaluate at any time. And just doing this allows you to prioritize the things that are most important to your well-being and your mental health.
Delay the yes
Depending on the level of ask (can I borrow 5 bucks vs can I have your first born child?) may determine how much time you need. If it’s a small ask, you may be able to just take a beat. If it’s a bigger ask, you can say something like, “Let me think it over tonight and I’ll get back to you tomorrow.”
Consider your values and decide
Does this move you towards or away from a value-driven life? You can also decide if this is a big deal or not. If your coworker left their wallet at home and is asking you for a couple of bucks to grab something from the vending machine and it won’t put you out. Go ahead. But if it’s something that will take a significant time, financial, or emotional commitment, really consider your values and where they fit into your overall mental health.
This part is important, especially if the answer is no. If the answer is yes, you can go back and let the person know enthusiastically. You’ll know that you said yes because it’s something that’s actually important to you and you can be genuine and authentic with the asker.
If the answer is no, it can be tempting to also want to avoid letting them know because it’s uncomfortable. But remember, this is looking out for your mental health and you’re saying no because this particular thing does not align with your values and there is nothing wrong with that.
A lot can go wrong if you avoid giving an answer for too long. Maybe the person will interpret your lack of response as you being unkind or maybe they’ll interpret it as a yes. You also give yourself time to second guess yourself. Time for your mind to take off with all the reasons you should just suck it up and do it. So once you’ve made a decision, stick to it and tell the person “no.”
Here’s a phrase to get you started: “I thought about it and it really doesn’t fit into my schedule/budget right now. I wanted to get back to you as soon as I could so that you could make other plans.”
Notice, there’s no apology. You have nothing to be sorry for.
So there you have it. Quick and dirty, 4 step process to saying no as an act of self-care for improving your mental health. If this is something you’ve struggled with and like to work on further, you can schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation with Tailwinds Counseling.
Erika Ames is a Licenced Clinical Social Worker and owner of Texas online therapy practice, Tailwinds Counseling. Her specialties include anxiety, young adult issues, and coping with cancer as a patient or caregiver. To schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation with her, click here or call (713) 936-4909.