Do You Know How To Say No?

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

Such a tiny word. Such a powerful one. For toddlers and teenagers, saying “No” comes easily. Then something changes. Some of us as adults would rather stick pins in our eyes than say no to anyone. That’s a problem. An even bigger problem if you suffer from chronic pain

You likely know the drill. Your body is screaming in flared pain -- red flags for rest and self-care. But you don’t say no to your neighbour who needs help with a chore. You don’t say no to babysitting your nieces at the last minute. You don’t say no to that extra job your boss asks you to stay late for. 

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The inability to say no is directly linked to our need for approval from others. Why do we crave their positive opinion? There are many reasons, but for our purposes let’s just talk about chronic pain patients and some of the reasons we can’t say no.

The consequences of unrelieved pain can include but are not limited to:  depression, anxiety, impaired function, financial distress, sleep and appetite disturbances, identity erosion, social isolation, relationship conflict, demoralization, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. They can all disconnect you from your family, friends, work and social life.

In a herculean attempt not to relinquish “who we were” before the pain, we don’t say no. Our hearts scream out: “I’m still a son/daughter! I’m still a partner! I’m still a parent! I’m still a good friend! I’m still a valued employee!”  We instinctively try to stay in the group in order to survive. We must be accepted and approved at all costs!

What are the personal costs of not saying no?

Anxiety

We only have so much time and energy, and yours is steadily eroded by other people’s demands. You may begin to experience anxiety attacks. Constant worrying and catastrophizing can lead to heart palpitations, sweating, headaches and other physical manifestations.

Depression

Constantly giving in to the demands of others and consistently falling behind in your own life can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, a major contributor to depression. If you spend your time catering to others without focusing on your owns needs, you can lose track of what you want and who you really are. This loss of identity feeds into anxiety and depression.

Relationship Breakdown

In the beginning, saying yes all the time may be appealing to you and to others. But as time goes by hidden resentments may surface or you may feel manipulated.

If you cannot say no, you’re not being honest about your feelings for fear of hurting someone else’s. You may not even be honest about how much pain you are in.

Honesty is a cornerstone of healthy relationships. Saying yes when you truly want to say no isn’t being honest – to yourself or anyone else.

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Stress

Too much stress isn’t healthy and can be devastating to pained bodies. It’s exhausting trying to please everyone all of the time. Exhausted bodies are stressed bodies. You’re more likely to experience low grade colds or illness, have trouble sleeping, and feel more pain.

The inability to say no is problematic to your mental and physical well-being. It serves no one – not you or others – to be consistently saying yes when your body says no. You are not being true to yourself or to them.

Others cannot see your pain or understand what your needs are, so they are not given a chance to respect them. It’s really a lose-lose situation.

How does a pain sufferer get themselves out of this unrelenting pattern? Here are four tips I’ve learned:

1. Make Your Pain Visible

If you were in a wheelchair, your disability and limitations would be obvious. But when your pain is invisible, others may need to be educated. It’s time to fess up about what you are capable of and what you are not. Your health demands it.

You’ve likely heard this before: If you don’t take care of yourself first, you will never be able to take care of others. Think of the flight attendant teaching us how to use our oxygen masks in case of emergency. You always put your own mask on first to get the oxygen you’ll need to help others. It’s just like that with pain. When your body says no, it becomes you first.

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Some people feel shame in telling others that they suffer from chronic pain. They feel broken or weak and don’t want others to know. This is an erroneous self-belief. It creates an invisible boundary between yourself and the rest of the world.

You = bad, broken. Everyone else = good, whole.

This is emphatically untrue. You are not different from the rest of the world. Everyone suffers in some way, shape or form. It may not be from physical pain, but it will be from something else.

It may not be the easiest conversation you ever have, but it’s one of the most important ones.  Some folks provide educational material about their pain condition to help explain how debilitating it can be. You might be pleasantly surprised when you give people a chance to understand. They may embrace you with compassion, respect your limitations and treat you accordingly – just as you would for a loved one.

If you don’t say no and make your pain visible, they’ll never see the authentic you. They only see a façade: You wearing a “yes” mask. Is that fair to either of you? 

2. Create Boundaries  

When you’re learning how to say no, it’s easy to get caught off guard so be prepared. Sometimes well-meaning loved ones will try to coax or guilt you into doing something you really don’t want to do. Have a narrative ready. It could be something like, “I know I look fine, but my joints are hurting so much it’s getting hard to move. I’m just exhausted and I need your support right now.”

Or perhaps something like: “Sorry, I cannot help with that because I’m in a pain flare today and need to take care of myself. I’d really like to help when I am able to, so next time around, ask me again.”

Boundaries for support from other people need to be firm. If not, you risk no one taking you or your pain seriously.

3. Simplify Your Social Life, But Don’t Abandon It  

What about social occasions? How do you handle an impromptu invitation from a friend when your body is telling you to stay put? Living as well as possible with chronic pain is all about constant adaptations.

Perhaps there is something you could attend if someone else did all of the driving?

Maybe you can go to a potluck dinner, but your contribution is store-bought?

Loved ones want to get together for a meal? Dining out is a terrific choice because there’s no cooking or clean up involved.

Can’t keep up with your friends at the gym? Let them run on their treadmills or go to cardio class while you walk around the track. You can all meet up later for a stretch and a green tea.

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Family wants to go bowling, which is something you’re not physically capable of? No need to miss out. Let them bowl as you sit and chat with them as they take their turns. You might be pleasantly surprised your inner circle is just happy to have you there and that they’ve come to understand your limits

4. Yes, But…

How do you RSVP to an invitation when you have no idea how you will feel at that time?

How about this: “Thanks, I would love to come but there is a chance that it may be a flared pain day for me. Can I confirm with you the day of, if that’s okay?” This is a regular of mine.

It may turn out to be a low pain day, in which case I’m attending.  If it’s a medium pain day, I’ll put my psychotherapy tools to work and go. If it’s a very high pain day, I am staying home.  

Framing it this way makes it much easier for me to bow out at the last minute. I do this both socially and with work-related meetings. If I’m not able to make it, we re-book so they know I really do want to attend, I just need to be well enough to do it.

There are some very special and rare occasions where I will say yes even if my body says no, such as a wedding or special birthday event. In that case, I will not book myself for anything or anyone for a couple of days after so that I can fully recover.

Say no when necessary. Simplify and adapt to your needs when necessary. You first. It’s not selfish, it’s self-compassion. Chronic pain patients could all use more of that. Seek help if you need some.  Most therapists are well-versed in self-compassion.

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for over 30 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.