We Need To Start Saying No – And Stop Feeling Guilty About It

Image: Gemma Correll for Cup of Jo
Image: Gemma Correll for Cup of Jo

The idea for this post came at precisely 5pm, on a weekday afternoon at my desk. I was still in the office, earphones plugged into the computer and waiting for my friend to finish work so I could meet her for a coffee after cancelling last minute on our previous plans – and I was kind of dreading it. It’s not that I didn’t want to go, (I did and I hadn’t seen this particular friend in an age), but I was so burnt out after a weekend of gigs, tightly packed bars and a Christmas party that continued well into the small hours, that if I could’ve clicked my fingers and skipped to the next day, I would have. I find myself in this place often, because I’m too afraid to say no to plans and feel awful amounts of guilt when I do apologetically cancel on people.

Many people would describe themselves as an ‘introverted extrovert,’ and I’m definitely someone who falls into that camp. I thrive off situations where I’m surrounded by friends, cackling in a mate’s house or crowded round a tiny table in a sticky bar, nursing a glass of pinot like it’s my first born child.  I need constant interaction and there’s not a day goes by that I’m not on WhatsApp, Twitter or Facebook Messenger checking in with my friends and gossiping about x, y and z. But then, I need downtime too. After a particularly stressful day at work, there’s nothing more I’ll want to do than go home, make a nice dinner and watch some shit television. You’ll find me skipping off the bus, practically fizzing at the thought of a silent house and a couple of hours all to myself. I need time to re-charge and relax without having to impress anyone or wrestle with socially anxious thoughts.

But here’s the thing, I’ll enjoy this solo time for approximately 3 delightful hours, spending it reading, eating and listening to music, but after a while I start to feel sad. Like, super sad. Like, 3 periods and 2 break-ups deep, sad.

Aaaaaand there’s the catch. Its name is anxiety.

I thrive off social situations AND I need to be alone. But heaven forbid, not for too long. Too long on my own and I’ll shrivel up and evaporate like the big, lonely loser I am.

“God I’m sad. It’s 10pm on a Friday and I’m 22 years old. I should be sashaying round a bar full of liquid courage, not sat on my sofa alone. ALONE. Did you hear me? ALONE.”

I’m well versed in feeling down, and have learned coping mechanisms to help pick myself up. I call a friend. I make a long, slow dinner. I paint. I listen to my favourite album. I can manage, but sometimes – I just want to do nothing. And sometimes, I need to get out of my lonely hermit bed and talk to the closest human, ASAP. I’m a walking contradiction, I know.

I should be able to do both – be both the life and soul of the party and the girl who shuns social plans for a night of Netflix and chill – but I find myself wrestling with guilt no matter what choice I make. It’s exhausting. If I go out when I’m not feeling it, I feel like I’ve let myself down. If I stay in, I feel like I’m the only person in the world without plans. How can I win?

While I know that having a mental illness like anxiety was sure as hell not my choice, I often feel selfish for making decisions that suit me and perhaps not others, because of it. If I’d cancelled on coffee with my friend for the second time she would probably have been a bit prickly, and understandably. But what value was there in me braving the whipping winds to shout over the din of a crowded coffee shop, half-heartedly catching up? As much as I loved seeing her, if I was completely honest, I would’ve much preferred seeing her another day and giving her all my attention then. The meeting was for her benefit, not mine, and I’d allowed myself to ignore the voice at the back of my head screaming ‘down time, Sara. You need down time.” As a result, I spent the next two days off work, sick. And while I don’t blame my physical illness on this one meeting, pushing myself physically and mentally can’t have helped.

I’ve tried, in the past, to say no to upcoming social engagements when I know for a fact that I will just not have the energy, but because of the festive period and flurry of invites, I’ve stopped – and have once again found myself flattened by the weight of people pleasing at my own expense. I can understand how my friends feel. Really, I can. If I was the friend at the other side of a “sorry, I’m not going to make it,” I’d probably demand a reason, too. But therein lies the problem. We need to give ourselves and our friends a break. Without making myself out to be a martyr, I regularly put my needs behind the needs of others (often without realising I’m doing it) and it’s done nothing more than make me exhausted, mentally drained, and in fact far more likely to cancel on plans than if I’d said ‘no’ and taken some time to recuperate. By pushing myself to go for that coffee, drink, or dinner, all I’ve succeeded in doing is making myself miserable, and I probably haven’t been all that great company, either.

“The only way to tackle this endless cycle of exhaustion is to give ourselves a big old break, and crucially, to do the same for our friends.”

There’s a great piece of advice I often see rehashed again and again on articles talking about mental health; talk to yourself as you would a friend. If a friend came to you and said they couldn’t make it to your plans, you might be pissed off. But if they explained why they were cancelling; feeling a bit down, trying to save some energy so they don’t crash, just need some solo time etc. – you’d hopefully understand. So give yourself the same break. We all need to a bit more selfish when our mental health and happiness lie in the balance. Especially you, my fellow people-pleasers, I see you over there.

It’s a messy minefield of ‘what if’s’ – this saying no to plans. What if your friend has just broken up with their boyfriend? What if they’ve paid for the two of you to have a fancy meal somewhere? What if you won’t see them again before they go travelling for six months? These are all questions that merit a bit more thought, and if you do ruminate some more and STILL can’t face going, then you need to be totally honest with your friend, communicate openly, and if you can – suggest another date to make up for missing this one. Your friend might be pissed off or not understand, but as long as you’ve clearly and sensitively explained your reasons for not committing to plans, and you’re not knowingly being a dick, the rest is on them – not you.

I’ve actually been on the end of a more sensitive rejection myself. After a particularly down day, I’d asked a friend to come visit me. They couldn’t, due to previous engagements, and even though I was mildly pissed off, after a bit I understood and actually sort of respected them for standing by what they needed to do. Just because my world had temporarily stopped turning, it didn’t mean that everybody else’s had as well. The time on my own actually helped prove to myself that I’m capable of being by myself, and I saw the friend a few days later for a decidedly more pleasant lunch.

I’ve come to realise that although lots of time alone isn’t good for me, spending tons of energy at social functions isn’t going to do me any favours either. I need to get better at saying no when I know in my heart that I need to, and when I do find myself ducking plans for a night in, I need to learn to love the alone-time, not fear it.

So I’m making this my mantra for the end of this year and into next: start saying no and stop feeling guilty about it.

Tweet me if you’re doing the same, @saramacauley_


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