Someone said to me once — you know what I like about you? You never say no. And at the time I felt kind of pleased, like being so accommodating was something to be proud of. I glowed in the face of their approval.
Seventeen years later I remembered this moment and my reaction this time round was ‘oh, fuck’.
And I saw how somehow, I’d internalised the belief that if someone wanted something from me, I was obliged to say yes. A coffee catch up. A favour. For me to work the weekend. Time. Money. Sex.
I listened to the entire spiel of telemarketers and street corner charity fundraisers, squirming, before making some lame excuse that never involved the word no.
The belief that I had to say yes spiralled on itself to the point that it began to feel like my responsibility to anticipate people’s potential wants before they knew themselves, and proactively offer my sometimes unwilling yes. I felt guilty if I thought of something someone might want, and I said nothing about it.
(That said, it wasn’t all bad — the houses I lived in never ran out of toilet paper, or pretty much anything else.)
This way of being became so automatic and so unconscious I never questioned it. Until now, when I realised I have an anxious insomniac living inside of me who is getting a lot of airtime.
Strangely, she’s kind of awesome, and I’m loving that she’s here.
She’s awesome because I’ve started to listen to her. I’m not buying into everything she worries about, but I AM really listening to the shape of her fears, the why behind her panic. She’s not an anxious insomniac for no reason. She doesn’t want to feel this way, and I’m learning what she needs so she doesn’t have to.
I’ve started to see what happens JUST BEFORE she gets triggered.
Becoming aware of what triggers her, and catching it JUST BEFORE it gets overwhelming, gives me a lot more options. I can choose how to respond, rather than defaulting to my usual knee-jerk reaction of getting cranky, feeling numb and shutting down.
What happens just before my internal anxious insomniac freaks out?
Someone asks me for something.
Or, more subtly, I think there might be a possibility someone will ask me for something.
And then I’ll have to say yes. Or… maybe. Or, avoid the question until it doesn’t matter any more.
Wait, where’s the no?
No is not a thing. I’m not sure why, but the world will DEFINITELY end if tell someone I can’t or I won’t or I don’t want to. I’m pretty sure the sky will fall. The apocalypse will arrive, complete with the full set of horsemen, and that’ll be it for the universe.
The anxiety I feel when I think of no is an unpleasant tingling buzzing in my chest like a swarm of yellow metallic bees made out of static. To free the bees and my inner anxious insomniac, I need to learn to say no.
So I’m devising ingenious ways of teaching myself the world won’t end if I do say no.
I asked my housemate to help me by asking me for things so I can say no to him, and when he hears no he’s just to say ‘thank you’. Asking him to do that for me was really fucking hard (I sent it in a text message while he was at work so I didn’t have to ask in person). Saying no the first few times was also really fucking hard. It felt incredibly vulnerable, and I wanted to hide my face and to cry.
But, the world hasn’t ended yet.
I started saying no to pretty much every invitation from everyone to leave my house for any reason. My friends keep asking, and keep understanding. They haven’t given up on me like my anxious insomniac knew that they would.
It’s kind of getting easier. And still, the world hasn’t ended.
I’m missing parties, missing events, missing the faces of my friends. But until I feel a full body YES, I’m going to keep saying no.
All these ‘no’s are building a lot trust where before there was just an internal shitshow of checking out and going numb and dragging myself to places I didn’t want to be. I feel clearer, more confident. My inner anxious insomniac is much more relaxed because she’s beginning to believe I’ve got her back. I feel more present. More focussed. Even my eyesight is clearer.
Who knew one little word would give so much.
Sometimes I question myself. Am I sure I’m not just overreacting? People work full time jobs and go to parties and have relationships and social lives. I could suck it up and force myself to do that, I USED to do that, why am I so sensitive now? Maybe it’s all in my head? Maybe it’s insanely self indulgent to do what I’m doing?
I’m hitting my own conditioning. Historically, Western culture hasn’t had much place or use for this kind of exploration. Anxiety and insomnia are labelled mental illness and stigmatised but my experience of it (while at times it’s frustrating and challenging and annoying and isolating) is that it’s a really beautiful opening, pointing me to new depths of self awareness and aliveness. It feels important to do what I’m doing, even if part of me is second guessing all of everything all of the time.
I’m on this planet to THRIVE, I’m not interested in just surviving.
For me, YES is the result of a choice. YES means that there was a possibility of NO. I’ve never allowed myself that choice, until now.
So I’m going to keep saying no until I know what yes feels like.
And then I’m going to say yes.