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Posted under: Community Submitted

How Saying 'No' Can Protect Your Career, Relationships And Mental Health

Learning how to live on our terms by rejecting what doesn't elevate us

Long before we learn the full lexicon of the English language, one of our first words is “yes.” As toddlers, we use it to respond affirmatively to our parents as they care for us. As adults, we accept people and situations into our life with it. Yet, in a world where we are conditioned to affirm and accept even those things that are to our detriment, saying “no” gives us the power to negotiate, to demand, and to refuse; to shape our world through our eyes. Indeed, “no’ is beneficial to our careers, our lives, our relationships, and our mental health.

Many of us say “yes” to educational, career, and lifestyle choices that we aren’t truly happy with in an attempt to please those closest to us, or to accomplish the "goals of adulthood". At 29, I thought I had it all. I was an emotional specialist for the third largest school district in the country, a martial arts fitness instructor on weekends, a consultant for two non-profits and licensed to preach by a national denomination. I’d arrived at a state of accomplishment. Yet, the illusion of contentment literally collapsed one day when I fainted in the middle of a supermarket. I spent the next few months with increased feelings of illness, debilitating fear and sadness. The apex came when I had my first panic attack while driving on an interstate highway. A psychologist diagnosed it as severe Generalized Anxiety Disorder, typically caused by intense stress. She asked how busy my life was. Ten fingers weren’t enough as I named all my career moves and affiliations.

The profound moment came when she asked me how much of it made me happy. I didn’t need any of my fingers to count then. None of it did. I’d done it all because that’s what we’re supposed to do. If the scholarship, salary or lifestyle is good, we’re taught to say “yes”. We do so even when it doesn’t match our internal compass of self-actualization. I had a four-year scholarship to a prestigious music conservatory, but my family and mentors told me to find a “real career”. So I said “yes” to a path I didn’t really want to walk. I wasted many years being indifferently-successful when I could have been joyously-fulfilled if I’d only said “no” to other people’s vision of my life, or to the social dogma about adulthood.

Other times, we find ourselves saying “yes” to people who take from us until we’re empty. Psychology has long identified the concept of the “giver”, those who give without limit. From time to time, we’ll all be Givers. We’ll find people in our lives who trigger within us the psychological need to care for them. We’ll want nothing in return and will be gratified by the act of giving. Often, though, we’ll give until we have no sustenance left, even for our self. Eager to keep giving, we’ll provide no warning when we're close to being empty. Once we’re drained, we become furious with those who took from us. We loathe them for not caring for us the way we cared for them.

We’ve all been in relationships where we gave everything we had, then we're tossed aside. We’ve all had one-sided friendships where we exist in practical servitude to someone who offers no reciprocity. We’ve all enabled a damaged loved one, carrying them on our backs to hold them above water only to find ourselves drowning when they refuse to finally swim. We’ve all had a boss who expects us to hold up their corporate banner, even when our arms are broken.

Iyanla Vanzant paraphrased this powerful message from the book A Course in Miracles: “When you give to others to the point that you’re sacrificing yourself, you make the other person a thief...because they’re stealing from you what you need and they don’t even know it.”

In our education, career and lifestyle choices, we must say “no” to everything that does not match with our own vision of self: the expression that comes from genuine self-identification and idealization. You have the right to say “no” to an educational course that isn’t true to your goals, to demand the salary or position you’re worth, to block attempts to cause you to conform and to deny that which doesn’t elevate you.

In our relationships, friendship, and families, we must say “no” to everyone that doesn't fill us up the way we fill them; those that want to be raised by won’t uplift us. You can’t feed others if you’re starving. Fix them a plate, but be sure not to sacrifice your seat at the table.

Saying “no” isn’t cruel when it protects our mental and physical health; when it guarantees our chance to walk in our destined path and genuine self. In those cases, "no" lets you own the right to live your purpose. It’s keeping your cup filled so you can pour into those you love. Above all, it’s self-preservation.


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Umohowet Yelayu writer, poet, musician, from Chicago, IL. His debut collection of poetry "Songs of Our Old Orbits" was published in 2018. He has worked in education, social-emotional counseling, and community development, for nationally funded nonprofits and in the nation’s fourth largest public school system. He is the founder and chief executive officer of The Civil Regeneration Fellowship, a nonprofit organization that provides services to schools, families, and communities-in-need in the four areas of Education, Mental Health, Community Development, and the Arts. He is the founder of the Uchu Taiyoko Ryu Dojo, a community marital arts and yoga program in Chicago.