Letting Go: Leaning in to “No”

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When the question on the personality test asks me to rate my multitasking skills on a scale of 1-10, I look for the option of 11.

I’ve always taken pride in being perceived as competent. I sometimes feel as though I go about waiting for the moments when someone says, “you do so much”.  These statements for so long have felt like compliments. It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve realized they’re anything but.

I like to have four or five things to include as moving pieces in my consistent puzzle.  These things include but are not limited to: jobs, education, spirituality, and relationships. Instead of picking one or two things I really want to invest myself in, I’ll take portions of myself and stick them into these little boxes.  I’ve spent more nights than I’d like to admit awake wondering if we all cycle through this balancing act or if i’m just insane. I cram things that have gigantic potential into tiny spaces and then I shove the lid on top of them. In places where there’s room for opportunity, I suffocate it.

For most of my life, I figured I would be fulfilled if I pleased others. All I’ve ever wanted is to make other people happy. To make them proud. To make them smile. My desire to be above average, to be admired, and to be adored always seems to leave me juggling more fruit than I can bear. My heart knows that good things take time, patience, and even sometimes a little sunshine and water —but my greed drives me to crave instant gratification and affirmation. I can’t wait to move onto the next thing. Less never feels like more.

The idea of being competent and liked has driven me to extremes.  I’ve not only wanted to do everything on my own, but I’ve wanted to be the best at it. I’ve sought to be the highest achiever and the doer of all things. Keeping busy seems to be the answer to my problems because it often warrants praise.  For most of my life, “no” hasn’t been in my vocabulary. All of my boxes have been marked on the outside with an all caps “YES” in permanent marker.

I guess what they say about your developing years fueling your beliefs is true. Even as a child, the narrative I developed was that a joyful “yes” was the quickest path to win praise from family, friends, and even strangers.  Throughout high school and college I played the Yes Man, the Achiever, the Go-Getter. As I grew into my adult life, the idea of saying yes to everyone all the time started to glisten a little less. The more praise I won, the higher the bar seemed to be set for the next round. One day I realized I was standing on my tip toes stretching for something that was so far over my head it was no longer visible. I couldn’t understand what I was trying so hard to achieve any longer. I stopped wanting to juggle the mess around me.

Towards the end of college, I developed intense anxiety as a result of this manic people-pleasing behavior. And then, for the first time in my life I started experiencing full blown panic attacks. First, they came once a month; then, once a week. Eventually, I lived in a state of constant fear of being disliked, unworthy and alone. I crashed. I couldn’t carry the weight of my self-induced pressure any longer. I decided I would rather collapse and be useless than stretch myself into nothing.

In my first summer of adulthood I quit making promises to the people I loved. I started ignoring the needs of those around me and the needs inside my heart. All my echoing answers of “yes” turned into cold silence. August rolled around and as the summer heat hit harder, so did my breakdown. Even with my recent detachment from responsibilities, I still always managed to end my Sunday with a neatly plotted out to-do list for the week. I had to hold onto some sort of control.

One Sunday, I looked down at the boxes next to each item. They seemed so neat and clean without check marks in them, yet the items on the list were almost too daunting to handle on top of the emptiness harnessed in my heart. A few of the tasks included “be in friends wedding” and “take final exams for this semester of grad school”.  

Looking at the boxes made me feel even more empty. During my burnout I had watched close relationships crumble before my eyes. I watched other people keep up their achievement mentality into adulthood and I wondered why mine kept leading me to a place where I felt only emptiness. Friends were tired of me being flakey, boyfriends dumped me (over and over), and family members stopped offering consolation when the crippling anxiety creeped back up.

I couldn’t be the person I claimed to be anymore. I wasn’t mantling the glittering trophy I thought I would own for being everything at once. Instead I was teary-eyed, looking at an empty awards case and wondering where I went wrong. It’s wild how the high of over-exerting yourself quickly spirals into a numbing habit before plummeting into the early stages of depression.

Those boxes might as well have been staring right into the depths of my worn down soul. I wondered what it would feel like to not mark them off for once. What would it feel like to leave it all undone, to jump ship?  

I went online and booked a flight from Denver to Nashville for later that day.

For a little while, I spent time alone in Colorado doing nothing but the things I want to do. Hiking, going to concerts, laughing with strangers. I answered to no one except for the voice inside my head. It turns out that when that voice is given the rest it needs from the outside world, it can be a whole lot more kind. Taking time to get away from it all and forget what I am supposed to be doing filled my heart for the first time in a long time.

And just like that, all my problems were solved.

Just kidding.

Leaving the mountains felt like stepping straight into hell after being cradled in a safe haven. Getting on a plane back home wasn’t filled with comfort, but instead fear of the “to-do” items I left untouched. When the wheels of the plane touched down in Nashville, my first instinct was to panic and start planning how I’d catch up. But as I sat down and started to put pen to paper for yet another list, that now kind little voice in my head reminded me that I get to choose where I show up and where I don’t. I am in control of the “yes” and the “no”.

“Quit” sometimes feels like a harsh word. “No” also sometimes feels like a harsh word. For a long time, these words were terms I associated with failure. But it turns out that “no” is potentially the most difficult and liberating tool available to me.  

Taking off on a last minute trip didn’t change the way I approach my life. I continue to go through a month or two of burning myself out on work, exercise, social activities, volunteering, partying, and whatever else I can find to keep myself feeling fulfilled. Most of these time periods end in me realizing my self-set,  unrealistic expectations after a long ugly cry session at a red light. I’ll spend more time struggling to silence the irrational thoughts that have developed in my mind then I did building them in the first place. Anxiety has a good way of creeping up into attack mode when your surroundings slow down.

Sometimes, what’s meaningful is letting myself be a complete and utter wreck. If I am kind enough to love who I am through the breakdowns, I can show up in my commitments wholeheartedly.  I can be a fully functioning, completely loved human and also publicly not have my shit together.

Autumn is an easy time for many people to get carried away into new beginnings. It’s the time of the year where I see so many people pursuing new careers, starting new school years, taking promotions and falling into new relationships. Many times, I balance all these exciting new things at once and start to drown in them by Winter.

As this new year and season approaches I hope I can speak to myself kindly no matter what I’m opting in and out of. I hope I can soften my the harsh critic who lives in my head on the days where I just can’t get it right. I hope I can find a way to get off the balance beam and mark my unfulfilling boxes with capital “NO’s”. Until I do this more, I’ll be crying into my steering wheel on the corner of 3rd and Demonbreun and telling myself that this too shall pass.

Ally Pace
Ally is a writer/20-something extrovert living in Nashville, TN. She believes that there is no such thing as a stranger, only a friend she hasn't met yet. She hopes to be a dinosaur when she grows up.

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