My heart goes out to all those affected by Hurricane Sandy. I was lucky enough to avoid the devastation of the severe storm as my book tour has taken me to the West Coast and to Hawaii; I hope that all readers are managing to deal with the huge challenges that an event of such magnitude presents. It is during times such as these that we must, more than ever, call on our tools to help us maintain our health and deal with stress effectively by responding to stress, rather than being overtaken by the stress response for long periods of time.
I want to continue with my presentation of the nine natural steps by introducing the third step, learning to say “No.” It’s something that was critical in my recovery and that I still find myself coming back to again and again.
The difficulty that we often experience in saying No, in being true to what we really want, can be a significant cause of stress. Whenever we are not true to ourselves, we create disharmony that is painful or that gradually festers and saps our life of joy. By learning to say No to whatever is detrimental to your well-being and instead following your innermost feelings, you will experience a strong sense of contentment in your life and in the decisions you make. Even when inevitable bad times or challenges arise, you will be able to weather those storms with inner strength.
Undesirable situations in our lives are often the result of failing to listen to our innermost feelings. This can lead us to overcommit ourselves, overpush ourselves, or get involved in something that is not what we truly want. In exercising free will to say and do what we desire, as long as we’re not hurting ourselves or others, we become more centered and balanced. This results in an abiding sense of contentment in the knowledge that, even when some decisions are difficult, we’ve done what we felt we had to do.
As with every other change recommended in the nine natural steps, this step presents challenges. It challenges you to summon the courage to know your innermost feelings and follow them more and more each day, knowing that in prioritizing this commitment, you are prioritizing your well-being.
No one else knows our thoughts and feelings with certainty, so it is up to us to set our own boundaries, being firm about what we can or can’t do. It is so easy in this world to take on too many commitments. We often feel obligated to people and projects that we know are only taking time that we can’t really spare. You need to be able to say No and do what’s right for yourself in order to preserve the person you are.
If you don’t learn to say No, your stress levels will rise as you live in disharmony with your true desires and in conflict with the amount of time and energy you truly have. In finding the courage to decline obligations and demands that you know you can’t meet, you also allow people to know the true you and your true wishes. This is not selfishness in the negative sense of the word; it is honesty. No matter what reasoning people give us as to why we should say Yes to their wishes or demands, it is for us to be strong, stand our ground, and communicate how we truly feel and what we are truly capable of.
In my own experience, I realized at one time that I wasn’t even aware of what my own true feelings were on a lot of matters. I had become so accustomed to wanting to please others, especially those I cared about, that I found it very difficult to say No or to tell the truth about what I thought. I had to train myself, which took time. During this period of readjustment, I would at times agree to something that I later wished I hadn’t, or vice versa. It was a process of reprogramming and relearning how to set boundaries. Denying your true feelings due to fear of the response or because you are eager to please will only cause resentment in the long run as your discontent with a situation accumulates. I came to acknowledge that there was a huge amount of stress tied up in my attempts to please those around me. My desire to keep everyone happy placed a huge strain on my time and energy. In the end, I realized that more than anything, I had betrayed myself and could blame no one else.
Saying No is one of the most important ingredients in a life filled with peace of mind and contentment. This is not a No rooted in cynicism or emotional withdrawal; with the ability to say No comes balance and healthy boundaries. Despite the benefits of this universally understood word, many of us have a hard time saying it for fear of upsetting someone else, and we may end up feeling burdened, resentful, and even victimized. Ironically, we forget that we were the ones who said Yes in the first place.
Practice saying No to commitments, obligations, and requests from others that you don’t truly believe in or that you know won’t serve you well in the long run. In more faithfully following your true desires, you will begin to have more time and energy for the people and activities that are of real value to you. This will eliminate some of the unnecessary demands on your time and energy that only generate stress. Whether it’s a boss, a spouse, friends, or family, people’s wishes are not always in line with our own. We must be honest when we are unable to meet those wishes or demands, not only for the sake of our own health but also to serve our true desires and to allow others to know who we really are. Although this may not always be comfortable and may present a variety of challenges, especially for those who are more sensitive and thus more susceptible to emotional stress, it is an important component of reclaiming the power that is your birthright.
Just as important as the art of saying No is knowing when to say Yes. Both responses are part of the same development process, which is learning to discern and communicate your innermost feelings. We are constantly being told what our feelings should be and how we should respond—through our upbringing and family or through culture, environment, and advertising. For example, you may believe that a promotion at work is the key to more happiness, only to find that after all the hard work required to earn the promotion, the promotion swallows more of your precious time and creates too much pressure in your life. This is not to say that you shouldn’t work for a promotion or that you shouldn’t want to grow in your work, but it is important to be aware, consult your inner voice, and be clear about what you actually want.
In learning to follow your innermost feelings, there will be times when you will not know immediately what you truly want. It will be necessary to pause and reflect for a moment, deeply considering the decision you’re about to make. Sometimes it will require time and reflection, and it also requires training and practice. The true test of that practice is if you have a sense of contentment and are free of stress, anger, and resentment surrounding a particular decision. Have the courage to follow through on how you feel, making choices that are true to the person you really are. In this way you will live in greater harmony with your true self, minimizing the amount of stress you experience from misplaced time and energy and increasing the level of contentment and joy you experience in your life.
From time to time you may find yourself looking back and wishing you had chosen differently in a decision. Maybe you entered a career you didn’t really want or married someone who wasn’t right for you or took on more responsibility as you tried to get a bigger home, and now you find that these decisions haven’t brought you the happiness you expected. There are no guarantees in life, but wherever you are, you can begin living in closer alignment with your innermost feelings starting today, knowing that you can’t be sure of what will happen, but at least you did your best. That is where the courage lies.