One of the biggest changes I have made in my life on my road to recovery is learning to say ‘no’. I’m an exceptionally ambitious person by nature. When people ask me to describe myself with five words the first one that always comes up is ‘determined’. As a result, my mental health has often fallen second fiddle in my pursuit to reach my goals. If I think back to just 18 monthes ago I was studying full time, working four days a week and volunteering with four organisations. It was simply too much. Yet every time a new opportunity came my way I would grasp it with both hands. Eventually I would crash and burn. It took me a long time to learn that it wasn’t worth it.
Saying ‘no’ is an important part of self-care. It is vital to set limits and to stick to them. I tend to try and apply the principle of ‘listen to your body’ to my entire well-being. In the same way I might take a day off the gym when my body is aching and go for a walk instead, I say ‘no’ to things when I need to preserve my mental health. It is important to listen to my mind and rest when I need to. This might mean skipping a party for an early night or taking time out in the day to sit in the sun rather than trying to fit in that extra meeting.
Saying ‘no’ isn’t just for general self-care. It is an important preventative measure for maintaining mental health. I’ve given some examples of when saying ‘no’ can be useful to help return to mental health. Whilst saying ‘no’ to things to feel better when you’re not well can come quite easily (as we don’t feel like doing things) what is perhaps more challenging is saying ‘no’ when you feel great. It is important not to take on too many things when feeling good because it can lead to things becoming overwhelming. This is very common amongst people with Bipolar, like myself, who agree to many things when feeling stable or hypomanic only to feel overwhelmed with obligations when things go downhill.
A strategy I often use is to give myself 24-48 hours to think about something before I agree to it. If I get offered a new job for example, I don’t just say ‘yes’ straight away on the phone. I take time to weigh up all the pros and cons for my long term health and well-being. I discuss these with those close to me and sit on it. Often once I have had time to weigh the options I am not as excited or confident about the opportunity as I first felt. Alternatively, if I still feel optimistic about being able to fit into my life after 24 hours then I know it is the right move.
I’m the first to admit it sucks saying ‘no’ to big opportunities. It often reminds me of a joke by Maria Bamford, the Bipolar comedian behind Lady Dynamite (the show I talked about in my last post). Bamford imitates the pep talk she gives herself before performing…’Listen kid, I want you to go out there and give 20, maybe 40%’. And often this is how saying ‘no’ feels; like I am not being true to myself or giving my all to things. It is a learning curb to accept that perhaps in order to be the best version of myself I need to be less. When you have Bipolar; when you have felt extremes of emotion that other people can only dream of; this is a hard pill to swallow. But when I want to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity that comes my way I just remind myself that less is more. And that I can actually do more as a stable person than as an unstable person. I would rather do less things at a high standards than stretch myself too thin and for everything, including myself, to suffer.
It’s okay to say ‘no’. It is an important way to protect yourself and tend to you’re own needs. It’s not always easy but it is always worth it.