Saying “Yes” After a Year of “No.”

“You always say no.”

My son said this to me nonchalantly at dinner one day. He wasn’t even angry. It’s as though he were casually observing a fact, like, “The sky is blue,” or “You’re wearing a dress today.”

The words smarted a little.  I wanted to mount an argument, but the truth is that I had gotten in the habit of saying, “No.” When my kids asked: “Can we…? Will you…? May I…” the word “No” had exited my mouth before they’d even fully formed the question. It was a little bit of a problem.

The noes had permeated deep into my personal psyche, too. Did I have time for a lunch break? Could I make myself a cup of tea? Was there time to go to the gym? Somehow, the answer always seemed to be no.

I had grown used to ignoring my needs and prioritizing my family, my chores, and my job. Deep down I believed that making these sacrifices were the hallmark of being a good mother. Intellectually, I knew this wasn’t true. But intellect had nothing on that pang of guilt I felt if I walked pass a pile of unfolded laundry to go to the gym.

Making a change was hard, particularly since I had grown used to ignoring my needs and prioritizing my family, my chores, and my job. Deep down I believed that making these sacrifices were the hallmark of being a good mother. Intellectually, I knew this wasn’t true. But intellect had nothing on that pang of guilt I felt if I walked past a pile of unfolded laundry to go to the gym.

Saying “No” to my needs also became part of how I proved myself at my job. I felt – I feel – the constant need to show that I am a more-than-competent professional, particularly since I’m often the only Black person, or one of few Black people in the room.  As I’ve written before, these thoughts are based on my personal fears, themselves based on a long history of racial discrimination and exclusion that has plagued the workforce. And it means I have often pushed myself to work long hours and excel during every one – even if it meant eating a hodgepodge of snacks near my computer at lunchtime.

After many years of saying, “No” to myself, saying, “No” to others became a sort of default. Mom, will you play a game with us? No. Irie, will you serve on this committee? No. Have you considered writing? No.

I realized I was often thinking the word as soon as I heard someone forming their question. “No” had become my only form of self-care. But it was often a poor substitute for the real thing; rather than refueling my tank, it simply allowed me to pour out my fuel elsewhere. I felt I was running out of fumes.

Then came 2020, the year of no. No travel. No social gatherings. No assurance that everything would be okay. For a while, I doubled down. Working from home meant I could work even longer hours, could accomplish even more. Working from home also meant there were more messes to clean, more groceries to buy, more meals to cook. My personal priorities fell lower and lower on the list. Was there time for me? “No” echoed through my brain like an unwelcome mantra.

How refreshing, then, it was to start saying, “Yes.” I can’t pinpoint the moment I decided that, yes, I did have time for a walk. Or yes, I did have time to eat a meal away from the glow of my computer. But the yeses started to come more frequently and more easily. I still often feel like a baby giraffe taking its first steps. My “yeses” are sometimes clumsy and faltering; when I stumble, it’s still tempting to grab onto a “no.”

But I’m starting to say “Yes” to myself more often. I’m saying yes to simple acts of self-care. Most of these start with easing up on my work-through-lunch, grind it out approach. As it turns out, I’ve found that I do have time for a lunch break and that I can take five minutes to brew a cup of tea or go for a short walk. And after work, I don’t have to fill my time worrying about my professional to-do list. Instead, I can read a book, watch a television show, or spend a few minutes deep breathing. As Krystal Reddick-Pollard noted in our interview about self-care, we usually do have time for this practice. Even a few minutes can remind us that we are each human beings who have a tank that needs refueling.

I’m also saying yes to moving my body. For the first time in a very long time, I’m moving without a distinct physical goal – not to get toned so my arms “look better”, not to become more flexible to look like an impressive yoga teacher, not even to practice yoga sequences in preparation for teaching others. (As a former yoga teacher, this took some getting used to.) Many of these goals, I am realizing, were externally focused and prioritized others’ perceptions or needs above my own actual desires. It feels good to move instead in response to my desires to clear my mind and loosen the kinks from a full day. Surprisingly, this reprioritization makes it easier to say yes to getting a little movement in every day, even if it’s just dancing to music after dinner.

Finally, I’m saying yes to investing in my own creativity. This blog has been the sweetest fruit of that endeavor. Making time each day to create these words and refine my craft has been a gift. It has also allowed me to unpack my feelings about my experiences as a Black woman in the world and to have conversations with people I respect and admire. Primarily, this blog is my way of saying yes to my creative desires, of acknowledging my feelings, and of expressing my talents. The fact that other people read and connect with these ideas is a fun and welcome bonus.

I wish I could say this is a post about how I stopped saying “No,” started saying “Yes,” and learned a little about love and life along the way. But old habits die hard. I still find myself wanting to log one more hour at work or skipping a cup of tea to run the vacuum and wipe down the counters. What I can say is that I’m making progress and that the more I say “Yes” to myself, the more I feel like saying “Yes” to others.

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