Blog cover, "The importance of yes and no"

Shamillah Wilson’s tips on learning
how to say YES to YOU!

Learning to say YES to YOU! Coming from an activist background, particularly one where the norm was to give ‘all of you’ to the activist cause, it is often difficult to establish any boundary between self and activism. In my coaching practice, refrains such as the ‘personal’ is ‘political’ although important in breaking silences, has also had the unexpected side-effect whereby many activists struggle to establish healthy boundaries. I may be unpopular for saying this, but, setting strong personal boundaries is necessary to create a state of emotional wellbeing. It is something each of us needs to start working on with the people closest to us as it contributes to increased self-esteem, confidence, emotional stability, and so on.

My first awareness of my lack of boundaries was when I had a breakdown more than twenty years ago after being asked to take on the responsibility for someone from a family member. It was just after I had entered adulthood, merely a moment after I had devoted so much of my energy to ensuring everyone was ok in the family. I had emerged from this period ready to focus on my path/journey. I was hit square in the face with this request, struck by the injustice of it, and my spirit felt so devastated that I was ready to fall apart. I was lucky at the time to share a house with a friend who suggested I seek professional help to help me process what was happening. In the processing space, I was startled to see how this one incident was representative of every other area of my life. My work, my friendships, my family, in fact everywhere I looked, I was able to see the effects of a lack of boundaries. It felt like I was doused with a bucket of cold water because to be quite honest, till then, I had seen myself as strong, assertive and quite clear in my communication. Yet, in my personal interactions with people closest to me, I was everything but clear, and this was reflected in the images of my life I was able to observe. Confronting this about myself was not pretty, and my immediate response was to go cold turkey, and stop saying ‘YES’. Of course, without having any real or deeper understanding of ‘why’, the effect of saying ‘NO’ was short-lived, such that a year or so later, the ‘YES’ started creeping in again. Fast forward a few years later when I started on my coaching journey, I was able to understand more about what the ‘YES’ meant, and that its function was that it was fulfilling a need within me. Learning to feed that need, I found myself able to be more discerning about when to say ‘YES’ and when to say ‘NO’.

I am pretty sure that many of you have a story to share about boundaries. The point is that in order to be healthy, to feel ‘ok’ within ourselves, and to get the best results for your life (even your activism), there has to be a healthy balance between saying ‘YES’ and ‘NO’. Many of my coaching clients express that they find it extremely difficult to turn people down, some express having a sinking feeling in their stomach, or feeling nauseous from guilt. For some, it is about not disappointing others, and saying ‘YES’ is about the gratification we get from feeling needed.

So, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that you probably won’t be able to completely eradicate the ‘YES’ from your life! The good news is that you can build the muscle of discernment such that you find that sweet spot of when to say ‘YES’ and when to say ‘NO’. Here are some tips that have worked for me:

#1 Press Pause

I have found that when I am caught off-guard, or am startled, I usually say YES.  What then happens is that I usually beat myself up because I did not pause before answering. So, my first tip is to just request a moment of pause. It does not have to be a day, it can even just be an hour, but request it as it will assist you in checking in with yourself!

#2 Observe what is happening when you get a request

The second tip is to check in with yourself regarding the request. For example, does it make you feel pressured? Do you feel excited to say YES? Does it align with something you want for yourself?  Would saying YES mean saying NO to your own goals and aspirations? If you are able to answer that, you would be able to make a decision that is not done in reaction to ‘fear’ of disappointing someone, or ‘fear’ of being unapproachable – or any other fear. But rather it is about taking the time to honestly assess whether saying YES is possible given your current commitments, energy or possibilities.

#3 Delve deeper into your WHY – and make peace with saying ‘NO’

One of the greatest gifts I gave myself was digging deeper into my WHY. In other words, what need am I fulfilling within myself by saying YES? For some, it might be feeling needed. When we dig deeper into that, it might reveal aspects of not ‘feeling enough’ and because of that, we feel enough by pleasing others. When you find your WHY, you would also point to where you need to do some more work on yourself. This may be the harder task and if need be, get someone to support you in processing it. After all, it means you are growing and learning to make yourself a priority too! When you know your WHY, it will also take you on the path to making peace with those moments of saying NO.

I am not suggesting that you find a blanket approach to responding to requests or pressures.  Instead, I am proposing you to dig deeper and to find a healthier balance for yourself. This is a journey, and requires intent and the commitment to be uncomfortable. Only then, can you honestly find your own unique balance of boundaries that is healthy for YOU!