Let’s talk about no

Let’s talk about no.  It’s such a little thing.  Two letters – n and o.  Yet I have lived for too many years in fear and trembling of putting those two letters together and saying them out loud. Okay… maybe I said them a lot when I was parenting little people, but I haven’t said them much when I’ve been out there in the big blue world.

Why?  What is there to be afraid of?

There are so many answers to that, I couldn’t even begin to write them all in this little blog!  I’m working through them.  It’s a process.

There is actually some science to it, a lot of research to it, and a lot of serious identity lies and junk involved.  And I have a LOT of the big psychological markers – I’m a first-born child, I’m a female, my personality tends toward achievement and perfectionism… we could go on and on here.  I hate to disappoint people.  I can’t stand conflict.  I am highly capable and highly responsible to a fault. I thrive on challenge and proving that I can do it. I never learned how to fail.  “Quitters never win and winners never quit” and “Second place is first loser” and “Why did you get a 95 on the test?  What did you do wrong?” are all things I have carried in my heart.  There’s a lot of systemic junk here.  The point is, I have to learn to manage who I am and my history and my circumstances or it’s going to kill me.  It’s all manageable, but I have to be willing to learn and grow. And, to an extent, I have to learn to swim upstream and say no to things that our culture values.  Our culture values efficiency and effectiveness.  It values hard work. It values high achievement and people who readily take on challenges.  It values return on investment. It values people who push through, who work harder and longer and say yes to more work.

But here’s the thing… every time you say yes to something, you say no to something else.  Maybe not out loud, but it is how the formula works.  It’s an equation.

Yes + a = No + b

Therefore, “yes, I’ll write that article for your publication” = “no, I don’t have time to go to coffee with my friend today”.

“Yes, I can do a 7pm meeting” =  “no, I can’t make dinner or be home with the family”.

In my head, I have always known this truth.  But.  There’s always a But. But, I haven’t been so good at heeding my own warning.  But, I don’t practice what I preach. But, I still have lived a life of saying yes to lots of things, too many things.  And, in the process, saying no to lots of things I really love, too.

I’ve said yes to writing a thousand articles for various people, and I’ve said no to being with friends who I love dearly.

I’ve said yes to teaching seminars and classes and study groups, and I’ve said no to family time.

I’ve said yes to writing curriculum and leading workshops and running meetings, and I’ve said no to my own physical and mental health.

My yes to one thing has been a no to another. And now, see where I am?  Burned out and unhealthy both physically and emotionally, and fighting to recover and rebuild my life and reshape my identity. I have been the queen of burning the candle at both ends, and I never really thought about where that scenario ends – it ends with a puddle of melted wax and nothing left to burn.

It’s not that any of the things I said yes to are bad.  Heavens no!  In fact, they have been things I love to do.  They are things that I am gifted at doing.  They are things that usually give me lots of joy.  But just like cake in and of itself is not a bad thing, I shouldn’t eat an entire cake!  A cookie after dinner is probably not going to kill me, but eating an entire box of Girl Scout Thin Mints is not a good thing.   Same with my love of teaching and writing and leading… any of those things on my agenda can bring great joy and life to me.  It was when I overindulged on them that I became joyless and began to burnout.

I’ve been living by a very ‘church cultural norm’ that tells us to give and sacrifice, give yourself away, give more and more, because you can’t ever out-give God and all that he’s done for you.  I’ve been living a life of sacrificial giving. People even use language that says, “I think we (ministry workers) should keep giving and keep serving until we’re all used up.  If we give it all we’ve got and die in His service, then that’s a good way to go.” This was actually said to me a couple of weeks ago.  Okay, I get it, and it makes sense, sort of.  But, I don’t think that God asked me to give and sacrifice to the point of neglecting my family or not having time for relationships or being so frazzled that I’m biting people’s heads off, because somehow that is not ‘love my neighbor as I love myself’.  I don’t think he asked my pastor to neglect his wife and spend every waking hour at the church.  I don’t think He wanted me to do so much for so long that I actually damaged my cognitive processing in my brain and could no longer form a complete sentence without blanking out!  We’ll talk about the biblical principles here another day, because this has also been a time of some deep study and searching for me.  But let’s stop laying our cultural filter on to our church filter and telling people that they need to give more and sacrifice more… just stop.

Now I am in a season of learning.  Learning to dial it back.  Learning to say no. Learning what my capacity is and what healthy rhythms are and exactly how much I can carry.  It’s a process of ‘right-sizing my life’, as Shauna Niequist calls it.

It reminds me of backpacking, actually.  I’m 5’1”. To backpack well and be able to withstand the pack and have the endurance I need, my body is only supposed to carry a certain amount of weight.  So, when I get ready to go out, I have to carefully fill my pack and distribute the weight.  I have to account for the weight of the pack itself, the weight of the water bottles I’m carrying, and the contents of the pack – my sleeping bag, my clothes, my gear, etc. Now, I can act like some deranged superwoman and overstuff my pack and exceed the weight calculations for my body, but it is going to play out poorly down the trail, trust me!  I’ve been there!  A too full, poorly distributed pack will eventually break you down.  The body WILL keep score!  Your knees will pay, your back will pay, your shoulders and neck will pay.  Then the attitude.  Then the relationships with others.  I’m not kidding.  It gets ugly when your pack isn’t right and you try to carry too much.  And it ends in exhaustion and depletion and brokenness.

This season of no is not easy for me.  It’s a time of wrestling with decisions over what to keep and what to let go.  I’m having to fight a lot of guilt. I’m having to learn to accept help.  I’m having to say no to some teaching and some writing that I really love to do.  I’m saying no to some travel and some visits that I would like to be able to do. But this is not a season for yes.  Because I need to say a lot of no so I can rest.  I need to rebuild my life. I need to learn some healthy rhythms.  I need to say a lot of no so I can recover my physical and mental health. I need to say no so I can get back some joy.

Saying no is still not intuitive to me.  Yes is my default, and I need to learn to reset and reboot and think through my decisions before I say yes.  Because my yes will mean no to someone or something else.

In this season, I’m saying yes to rest and recovery and getting my life back.

*This is part 4 of a series on my burnout recovery.  Go to The Slow Burn(out) to read from the beginning of the series.

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