Saying Yes from Obligation: How to Say No from Love

saying yes from obligation and no from loveWhen we believe that the only way to feel good about ourselves is to look outside of us, to get other people, our job, our career title or credential, our anything and everything to fill that whole in your heart that says “I’m not good enough unless other people say I am” it makes so much sense that we live our lives from a place of obligation.

But the catch is this: when you agree to do something, or conjure up an offer to do something or be something to try to get that external approval, to create a feeling for YOU based on someone else’s response to you, you’re setting your tender self up for pain and suffering, for heartache and resentment when it doesn’t go according to plan, when your partner, mother, kiddo, boss doesn’t fall all over themself with gratitude for you doing something you didn’t want to do in the firsts place. 

When you live your life from obligation, you’re actually hurting your relationships, with the world and with yourself.

You’re not showing up to have your own back, you’re attempting to create the feeling of self-love by having someone else’s back.

It’s just not sustainable, my darling.

Remember, in the Think-Feel-Act cycle we create our feelings based on our thoughts in response to the co-created circumstances in our lives. He says something, you interpret it through your own lens, based on your socialization, your conditioning, your hunger, thirst, sleepiness levels, the tension patterns in your own body, your historical stories about how this is likely to go. You create a thought about the words someone else said, which is the catalyst for the biochemical and energetic response which are our emotions. 

So he says “I’d like it if you could get this done by 5 today” and you consciously think “oh jeez, I have 473 things on my to do list, and I have no time” while maybe the habitual script in your mind, that old cassette tape from way back, is saying “I really need to do this or he’s going to be disappointed in me… he will think less of me, he’ll be upset, I can just put my needs aside to make sure to make him happy—happy with ME, and then he’ll know I’m a good person…” 

Which of course makes you anxious because duh, of course that script makes you tense up in your belly, feel tight in your chest. 

There is now a lot riding on this in your mind and body, so you say yes from that sense of deep obligation to manage both what other people think and what they feel.

So you put your everything aside and get his task done by 5. Meanwhile, what you’re creating for yourself is a boatload of annoyance, resentment and grump. 

It’s totally understandable why humans do this, evolutionarily my nerds, we want to keep the village happy with us so they’ll remember to save us when the lions come. 

Humans socialized as women are often taught that it’s important to be nice, and that nice means saying yes when we mean no. 

We’re often taught pretty directly that it’s our job to put everyone else first, that our needs come last, so we do what we were taught, we show up as the good girl, the obliger, the appeaser, the people-pleaser until we are able to step into being our Watcher, and can start to hear our own thoughts as they happen, and can learn to question them and ask: do I want to keep thinking this way? 

Does acting out of obligation, living from obligation serve me, the people in my world or the collective as a whole? 

And I would posit that it never actually does, not at all, it just keeps us stuck in old patterns of feeling like life’s victim, upset and out of control. And it’s not actually nice to be dishonest – which is what saying yes when you mean no is, unwittingly lying to try to make someone happy versus simply saying no or having a clear boundary. Folks who truly care about you are happy when YOU’RE happy, not when you’re trying to manage their emotions for them.

So let’s talk remedies:

First, I’ll remind you not to pathologize doing this. It’s normal, human, mammalian, and just because it doesn’t serve you to keep acting from obligation doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or diagnosable. It’s just a habit, my tenderoni.

Next, I’ll invite you to ask yourself whose voice it is in your head telling you to put others first. Is it a parent? A teacher? Someone else?

I find it useful to ask myself if it’s my own thought or one I’ve been taught to have, so I can start to detach from it, to recognize it as something I don’t HAVE to stay in because it wasn’t mine to begin with.

From there I ask myself if I want to do what is asked of me. 

Sure, we often get to do things in life we don’t actually want to or there would be no clean dishes or taxes filed, no dogs walked in a snow storm, no babies fed at 3 am, but we want the outcome, the result, so we do actually want that thing done, even if we don’t want to do that thing in that moment. It’s what I call a Prudent Choice, to get up and go to a job you don’t like while you simultaneously do the thought work to hate it just 1% less every day and send your resume around to anyone with a pulse. 

So the question is: do I want the result FOR ME, or to keep someone happy with me? To attempt to be liked or applauded? To be the fixer, the savior or the saint? And simultaneously, when it’s time to do whatever I’m agreeing to, will I feel good about doing it or be happy to be doing it even if I don’t feel like it right now?

And I’ll remind you of the power of pausing. You don’t have to feel internal urgency to reply just because someone made a request of you. If they have urgency that’s theirs to manage, and clearly I’m not talking about ‘will you please put pressure on this gushing leg wound’ I mean things like: will you take a look at my resume or read my paper or help with this conference? 

If someone else waited until the last minute or is feeling anxiety of their own for whatever reason, that’s okay. They can work with their own feelings and you can work with yours. 

Don’t let anyone else’s desire for an immediate answer lead you to say yes from obligation. 

Instead you can say something like “Being thoughtful about my commitments matters to me – I’ll get back to you in a few days or as I’m able.” No need for an excuse, explanation or story – I’ll get back to you as I’m able. Done and dusted. And sure, they may not like that, but again – when we people-please we’re prioritizing pleasing everyone but ourselves, and I’m done with that game. 

It’s time to please me first, remembering that it’s a gift to the people I love to be honest, to state my needs and capacities plainly, versus feeling the resentment that comes from giving what I don’t have or want to give. 

One of the things that happens pretty often in my life these days is that I get invitations to be part of online summits or other events that I don’t have the bandwidth for. Instead of saying yes and then feeling annoyed when it’s time to send out the emails about these events, I let folks know that I’m not available but my colleague who is working to build her own business may be. 

If I’m asked to make dinner and I don’t want to or don’t have the energy, I might say no, I’m not available to cook, but I’ll happily order take-out or delivery. I offer what I’m able and get creative about finding solutions that meet as many needs as possible without sacrificing myself just to attempt to gain external approval. 

When I focus instead on how I can be of service to myself and others, I’m able to give from my emotional, financial, energetic and time overflow with grace and love, instead of from obligation and resentment. 

Thank you for taking the time to read Feminist Wellness. I’m excited to be here and to help you take back your health!

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