I have a tough time saying no. If someone asks me to do something, I just add it to my long list of things to get done. Today, I need to feed the kids breakfast, drop them off at school, walk the dog, return to school to help stitch moccasins, go to the gym, write a proposal, approve a budget, take my son to the dentist, help with homework, cook dinner and go to a party. Sounds like a lot. But no worries, I pride myself on being hyper-efficient and getting it all done. I am constantly running around with no apparent end or destination. It is no wonder I often feel overwhelmed and resentful.
I am not alone. We are collectively and generously giving our time, our emotions and our resources. We give to the point of sacrificing ourselves, to our children, our careers, our aging parents, and our community at large. We feel that we are living up to the expectations that are made of us and wear our integrity like a badge of honor. We do not disappoint. We are so busy giving to other people, that we do not have time to give to our own selves in the same manner. It is not healthy and it has to stop.
We need to find a way to cut back for our own sake, especially when we feel obliged. I know that when a friend invites me to a potluck party, the right thing to do is to support my friend and attend. By agreeing to go, I absolve myself of the bad feelings of letting someone down and of potentially shirking a responsibility. I think, "I must say yes or this person will stop liking me. I must say yes because it will reflect poorly on my standing in this community." Even though deep down I feel too exhausted to go, I could not skip the party. It would be impolite. My friend would surely be disappointed. But will she? Maybe she just needs to know the head-count, and if she can count on me to bring some chips and dip.
Agreeing to do something you don't want to do, and don't need to do, eats at your heart and your soul because you just did something that did not honor yourself. The sense of duty or courtesy is so strong at times that the price of saying no seems too high. In fact, it is the opposite. It turns out that the consequences of politely declining an invitation are relatively small. I have discovered that I cannot sacrifice myself to make someone else happy.
There is no integrity when I do not honor myself, giving at my own expense. A good analogy is the oxygen masks that drop down from the ceiling of airplanes in an emergency. All the plane safety videos show parents with tepid smiles, fitting on their masks, and then assisting the child. In our daily lives, we too need to put on our own oxygen masks first, before helping other people. If we have been neglecting ourselves, we are of no help to anyone around us, like our family, our friends or our colleagues.
When I feel overwhelmed by the burden of being overcommitted, I find that practicing gratitude is the most powerful antidote. I remember to think of something for which I am grateful, and the momentary panic eases. When I consider everything in my life as a blessing, then nothing is taken for granted. Surprisingly, this lifts the pressures and tensions of the day. I suddenly feel like I do not need to be anywhere but where I am right now. Gratitude is the highest form of receiving and we need to be in this state more often. It dissipates the feeling that I am doing the wrong thing or that I ought to be doing more - whatever that means, anyway. I can see the bigger picture of myself in the universe, being all right and counting my blessings. My life's abundance is magically palpable.
Additionally, I have learned to let go a little bit. I empower my children to serve themselves at the table and load their plates into the dishwasher after meals. I trust that the people who I have delegated to will do their work just fine. I gave up striving to become the person that I think I am expected to be. And finally, I have reconsidered my priority list.
Our priorities are often ordered in a way that we, ourselves, come dead last. Make a healthy choice for yourself today by putting yourself on the top of that list. Take more time out than you think you need to recharge and just to be. Make sure you are motivated by true self-care, not escapism. (Trolling through Facebook for half an hour and shopping on the Internet don't count.) Do less, not more, to honor who you already are. Turn off your smart phone. Take a nap or a walk in the park. Meditate. Read a novel. Say no to the party that you are too tired to go to. Decline the urge to say yes.
Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.
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