my year of no

my year of no

It all started last fall: I was having one of those no-good-very-bad periods. Parenting felt hard and heavy. My job required overtime. My domestic load was ridiculous. My phone buzzed and dinged and rang. I was forever in the car, schlepping somewhere or another. Everything in my life, even activities I’d once enjoyed (dinner with a friend, a phone call) felt like an obligation.

In the midst of all the overwhelm, of course, I had entirely forgotten about myself. The things I counted on to keep me sane — evening baths, regular swimming, the occasional nap — had completely dropped off the schedule. Until one day, when I sat down to teach a writing class and my back went into total spasm. For weeks I could barely sit or stand or walk.

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We all have internal signals that tell us when the load is too damn much, don’t we? We get migraines, feel anxious, don’t sleep, lose touch with loved ones. Thanks to a decades-old injury, my alert has always been my lower back, and it’s a frighteningly accurate gauge of when my life has become overloaded, despite what my mind tells me (You’re fine! You can handle this! Don’t be lazy! etc., etc.). When the pain starts to last, or I can’t walk or drive or stand for long periods, I know I’m in trouble.

This particular episode took weeks to recover from — weeks in which my life had to be stripped down to the studs. Once I got back on my feet, I resolved to change something in my life. I began — drumroll, please — My Year of No.

Friends thought it was a joke. “You mean your ‘Year of Yes’?

“No, no!” I’d say. “I’m saying no to absolutely everything.”

The looks I got! “Isn’t that sort of, I don’t know, sad?”

How could I explain that it was the opposite of sad? That it was, in fact, a liberation?

What is that old adage about self-care? Don’t build a life you feel the need to escape from. This was my attempt to start again from the bottom. I felt committed to building a life I could actually live — without my body falling apart.

Let me be clear: obviously I didn’t say no to everything. I still had to work, parent, make dinner and do the laundry and pay the HOA fees. I needed to schedule dentist appointments and take the kid to the pediatrician.

But I noticed something that might be obvious to those who aren’t people-pleasers or the default parent who opens all those emails: it turned out that a lot I’d assumed was required was blatantly not.

Like:

That acquaintance who keeps inviting me to dinner that I don’t really connect with? That’s such a nice invite, but we’re so busy right now!

Those emails asking for parent volunteers for the classroom/Hebrew School/festivals? Ignore for now.

The ‘can I pick your brain’ emails asking me out for coffee? I’m not available this month but let’s check back later in the year.

Of course, it’s not black and white. Our lives are complicated messes, we love and loathe different things, and this shedding of duties will look different for all of us. And I still participate in the world. But I do so in more considered ways.

Because here’s the thing that I knew somewhere deep inside: all those nos lead to more room for yeses. Yes to baking a friend’s birthday cake. Yes to hosting a drinks party (I have the energy!). Yes to helping an elderly neighbor with dinner — I happily sent the kid over with bowls of soup and chili for weeks.

I also have room for more yeses for me. Yes to Pilates in the morning. Yes to midday naps when needed. Yes to taking on the writing assignment I really want.

It turns out that the nos help me get closer to my own internal compass, to my core values. It is my way of reminding myself that I am beholden to my family and my friends, but also, most important, to myself, to my own body.

Have I gotten pushback? Not much, to be honest. My guess is, in part, that the people and things I am saying no to are people and things I was holding onto for the sake of friendliness or likability or expectations. Will these people be bummed if we don’t do dinner? Maybe! But maybe (and this can be hard to admit) I’m allowed to care about my own desires, as well as theirs.

Some days I do have the wherewithal to do more. But, after decades, I’ve realized that it’s the small, thoughtless yeses that pull me out of balance, that tip my life too far in favor of everyone else’s requests. They remind me that I chose this mantra wisely, and that I use it not because I am trying to be difficult, but because I am saving room for another yes. Always save room for the yes.


Abigail Rasminsky is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + Bodies. She has also written for Cup of Jo on many topics, including marriage, preteens, and only children.

P.S. How walking (just walking!) changed my life, and what are your core values? Also, the nap bishop wants people to rest.

(Photo by Cherish Bryck/Stocksy.)