Does this sound familiar? Your mom asks you to watch the dog tomorrow while she’s out of town. You know you wanted to take tomorrow to run some errands you’ve been meaning to do for weeks now.
If you say yes mom, of course I’ll dog-sit for you, you’ll have to squeeze in those errands after work on Monday (you’ll probably stay late at work, too) or in between the dozens of other outings and obligations you’ve already committed to this weekend.
But that voice in your head says, don’t be selfish. Do this for her. She raised you, after all. “Yes mom, of course I’ll dog-sit for you. No, it’s no problem at all,” you say.
It’s all too common in our society to resist saying “no”. We want to be compassionate. We want to look like hard workers. We don’t want others to think we’re selfish, at all costs.
But how can we say no to people and still be compassionate? It may help to think about compassion in a different light.
In fact, Brené Brown, in The Gifts of Imperfection, tells us that to cultivate compassion for ourselves and others, we must define our personal boundaries clearly and firmly.
Ask yourself what you need right now.
Practice being open to your own needs. You’ll find that sometimes, your mind will spontaneously tell you what you need in this moment. Sometimes, it’ll remind you to ask yourself what you need. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself turning down requests and invitations without even knowing why, and you’ll later realize that you had way too much on your plate to begin with.
If it helps, take it a step further, and picture yourself as a child. Imagine asking him or her what they need from you. Stay open to what the child says. It may feel normal to neglect our present selves, but we would never ignore a child’s needs. Reconnect with that child in you, the one who still needs rest and care and playtime, and you may find it easier to care for the grown-up on the outside.
Make an “ingredients for joy and meaning” list.
Compile a list of what’s going on anytime you feel joyful: these are your ingredients for joy and meaning. Then, make an intention to start (just start) saying “yes” to things that cultivate joy and meaning, and saying “no” to things that bring you further away from joy and meaning.
Make a choice, and stay open.
Eventually it will become clear whether you made a choice that fulfilled you.
If you made the wrong choice, don’t kick yourself! This has become an opportunity for listening to what is happening, staying open, and learning about yourself so that next time you will be more informed in your decision.
When we agree to obligations which take us further from what we truly need, we say no to ourselves. In other words, we tell ourselves, “I know you have needs, but this matters more than you do right now.”
You can, however, cultivate the will to start filling yourself up rather than draining yourself. Saying no to what drains you or does not fulfill you is an act of self-love, and self-love is nothing but learning from yourself, allowing yourself to make the wrong choices sometimes, and gently reminding yourself to stay open to your needs in every moment. In time, you’ll find that your residual judgment and resentment begins to melt away, and is replaced by effortless love and genuine compassion.