You have a chronic illness, and things have changed. You may look the same on the outside, but you’re not. You’re in pain, fatigued, sick, and feeling low.
Accepting limitations and your “new normal” can be one of the hardest things for someone in your position to do.
This is why so many people with chronic illness push themselves too far. Mind over matter, right?
The truth is, taking on all your “usual” responsibilities while you’re living with a chronic illness is like working two full-time jobs.
Eventually, something’s gotta give (and it’s usually you).
Your health has now become your full-time responsibility. Everything else is secondary.
If you don’t become comfortable with looking at it this way, you’ll risk worsening of your condition, hospitalization, or even a complete mental breakdown.
Why “No” Is Such a Freeing and Empowering Word
“No” is the most powerful word a person with chronic illness can ever use. Yet, growing up, many of us were taught that saying “no” or taking time out for ourselves was a selfish thing to do.
These days, people are expected to work harder, sleep less, and socialize more. That’s next to impossible for the healthy among us, never mind those living with chronic illness!
Learning to say “no” both empowers and protects you. It sets healthy boundaries with others and with yourself.
Once you know what your boundaries are, you won’t allow anyone to cross them again.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Saying “Yes”
Before you say “yes” to any request or offer, ask yourself these important questions:
“Does the idea of taking on this project fill me with dread or excitement?”
Your gut knows way before you do when you’re about to get into a bad situation. Instead of focusing on your first thought the next time you’re asked to do something, focus on your first feeling.
If the very idea of complying with the request brings feelings of anxiety, dread, or resentment, it’s just not worth it.
“Is the social event I’m agreeing to attend worth spending two days in bed afterward?”
With chronic illness, you only have so many “spoons” or units of energy, so you know you must use them wisely. If you know you’re going to an event on Friday night, for example, you can plan for a couple of extra days of rest over the weekend.
Weigh your options. Check in with your gut. If the idea of turning down the offer fills you with disappointment and a sense of longing, your answer of “yes” will be worth it to you.
“Is this favor something I can do without risking a flare-up?”
Remember, your health is now your first priority. Think about what the person is asking you to do and compare it to similar activities you’ve done while sick in the past. Is it something you can reasonably do without risking a flare-up? Is it worth the risk? If not, “no” is your only reasonable answer.
“Is there a compromise I can make with this person?”
Maybe some friends ask you to go on a weekend trip with them. It sounds like fun, but you won’t be able to offer two full days of energetic and alert companionship.
Instead, ask your friends if they’d like to meet for coffee or lunch before they embark on their journey.
Effective Ways to Say “No” Without Appearing Rude or Lazy
The fact that society judges people as rude or lazy when they say “no” is a problem in and of itself.
However, in the interest of maintaining the social status quo, here are some ways to say “no” without upsetting the apple cart:
- Set boundaries.
What are your boundaries? Have you ever set any before? If you haven’t, you’re not alone. Some people just don’t know where they end and others begin.
Never has there been a better time to learn about your own boundaries.
Think of some of the major events in your life over the past year. How many things did you do out of guilt or obligation? How many times did you let someone wear you down or talk you into doing something you really didn’t feel like doing?
Once you know what you will and won’t put up with, it will be much easier to set limits with others.
- Say “no” with confidence.
Stand tall, look the person directly in the eyes, and in a firm, but pleasant voice, decline their suggestion. Practice doing this in front of a mirror. It may seem silly at first, but it works!
- Reflect back what the other person is asking.
Some people don’t realize how big a favor they’re asking until they hear it repeated back to them in their own words.
For example, “So, you’re saying you need me to get your daughter from preschool, keep her in the car with me while I drop off my son at soccer practice and my other son at work across town, take her with me to do errands, feed her, bathe her, and give her back to you when you’re out of work at 9?”
If a favor like that doesn’t seem outlandish to them even after you parrot it back, you might have to take the time to break down the (completely understandable) reasons why you are unable to do it.
- Be firm in your decision.
Once you say “no”, you’ve made a commitment to your sanity and your health. There is no backing down now. Some people who will try to wheedle, needle, cajole, and even guilt you into doing what they’ve asked.
Remain firm, strong, and courteous in your responses, but don’t give in. If you do, you will have taught the person that all they have to do is pester you, and you’ll cave.
Then, be prepared for everybody and their grandfather to come along asking you for favors!
Make Use of the “I Don’t” Method
Studies have shown that there is a large difference in the psychology between “I can’t” statements and “I don’t” statements.
The researchers designed a new study by asking 30 working women to sign up for a “health and wellness seminar.” All of the women were told to think of a long-term health and wellness goal that was important to them. Then, the researchers split the women into three groups of 10.
Group 1 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals they should “just say no.” This group was the control group because they were given no specific strategy.
Group 2 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, they should implement the “can’t” strategy. For example, “I can’t miss my workout today.”
Group 3 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, they should implement the “don’t” strategy. For example, “I don’t miss workouts.”
For the next 10 days, each woman received an email asking to report her progress. They were specifically told, “During the 10-day window you will receive emails to remind you to use the strategy and to report instances in which it worked or did not work. If the strategy is not working for you, just drop us a line and say so and you can stop responding to the emails.”
Here’s what the results looked like 10 days later:
Group 1 (the “just say no” group) had 3 out of 10 members who persisted with their goals for the entire 10 days.
Group 2 (the “can’t” group) had 1 out of 10 members who persisted with her goal for the entire 10 days.
Group 3 (the “don’t” group) had an incredible 8 out of 10 members who persisted with their goals for the entire 10 days.
If changing “I can’t” to “I don’t” works this well for self-talk and motivation, think of the effect it could have on others!
While “I can’t” implies you can’t do something right now, “I don’t” clearly states that what is being asked of you is something you don’t do. This means others are far less likely to ask you the same favor over and over (which is exhausting by itself).
Here are some examples:
“Can you come over and help me clean out my garage this weekend?”
- Can’t – “I can’t do it. I’m having a pain flare-up.”
- Don’t – “I’m sorry, man. I don’t do any manual labor when I’m having a pain flare-up.”
“Hey, let’s check out this party tonight!”
- Can’t – “I can’t even see straight with this migraine. I can’t go.”
- Don’t – “I wish I could, but I don’t leave the house when I have a migraine.”
“Will you watch my house while I’m away for two weeks?”
- Can’t – “I can’t. I could have a flare-up and might not have the energy to walk your dog, and she could poop on the floor, and I could slip in it and hit my head and have to go to the hospital, and by the time I got out, all your plants and your dog would be dead.”
That approach will ensure your neighbor never asks you for a favor again, but it also virtually guarantees she’ll never speak to you again!
Hint: Don’t over-explain. People hate that. It either makes you sound crazy or like you’re making up excuses. Just keep it simple.
- Don’t – “I’m sorry, but I don’t make long-term commitments of that sort. My health is too unreliable to depend on for that length of time.”
Do you see how the “I don’t” statements sound so much more powerful and commanding of respect?
Try it the next time someone asks you to do something you can’t, I mean, don’t do.
Yes, you are on this planet to share your journey with others, but it is ultimately your life, your body, and your mind. You are a singular individual who always has a right to say what you are willing to and capable of doing and what you are not.
You have always had that power. Exercise it now, and give yourself permission to rest.
Photo of crying child courtesy of Flickr/Aikawa Ke
Warren Buffett meme courtesy of The Roosevelts