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Magic Can Happen When You Learn to Say 'Yes'

Six tips for asking for what you really want

By Sara Avant Stover | May 28, 2012

You did it again. Your throat constricts, choked by the words you didn’t say. Your chest sizzles with the anger you’ve squelched into silence. You said “Yes” when what you really wanted to say was “No.” Sound familiar?

Even if we have the best intentions and have spent most of our lives serving and taking care of others (as mothers, wives, employees and loyal girlfriends), and have felt rewarded by it, we can still fall into this trap.

As women, we are biologically wired and culturally socialized to nurture and care for others first and foremost. We want to be virtuous, liked and helpful, and many of us even have our identities wrapped up in the help we provide to those closest to us. This programming may have been necessary to create stable, healthy families and communities, but we are now seeing that they also have a cost.

For many women, the second half of life offers a renaissance and a chance to reverse this trend. It’s the time in your life to start saying “No” to others so you can say “Yes” to yourself. Then you can step into your true power by living a fulfilling life, defined by what brings you joy. Once you do this, the unexpected happens: you are able to give back more, because you can impart from your own fullness, rather than your depletion.

How to Stand Up for You

“Life doesn’t actually get really yummy until about the age of 60,” says women’s health pioneer Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom and The Secret Pleasures of Menopause. “Everything that is no longer working in your life — like folding the towels for everyone, putting yourself last, always taking the burnt piece of toast or waiting until everyone else has their stuff done until you say yes to you — begins to go away.”

With the kids out of the house, career accolades won and several decades of life experience under your belt, midlifer women have the chance to stop in their tracks, reflect back on their lives and look into the future. From this vista, they can ask: “What about me? What do I really want now?”

“I used to work crazy hours: 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. was a regular thing,” says Susanna Nicholson, 55, a journalist–turned–health coach who works for Practicum Partners in Charlottesville, Va. “The stress levels in the offices I worked in were unbearable. I lived on coffee, Chinese food and office pizza. It was insane.” 

After a few years of running herself ragged, Nicholson contracted advanced Lyme disease, complicated by other diagnoses including anxiety, depression, "leaky gut," an overeating disorder, plus a secondary parasite infection. 

“I hit a wall — hard,” she says. “I literally could not get out of bed from the pain.”

It was that very wall that taught Nicholson how to start saying “Yes” to her own needs first. Working with a therapist, nutritionist and acupuncturist, she started doing a 12-step program (Overeaters Anonymous), along with practicing yoga, Qi Gong, and positive visualizations.

Self-Care Is the Opposite of Selfish

When Nicholson prioritized listening to and honoring her needs, she could make better choices about how to spend her time, what kind of relationships to get involved in, even how to be a better parent.

“At this stage of life,” she says, ”the best thing I can do for other people, including my daughter, is to keep coming into my own power, without arrogance. We all deserve self-care. We really do.” 

6 Ways to Claim the Power of Yes

  1. Recognize what’s not working. For one entire day, pay close attention to how you feel when you meet with people and engage in activities. Does your stomach twist into knots when you meet your colleague for coffee? Do you feel resentful doing your family’s laundry? Do you really not want to watch your grandchildren on Saturday? At the end of the day, take stock. Make a list of all the things that didn’t feel good and that in your heart, you would have rather not done. 
  2. Remember what you love. Take 15 minutes and sit down with a blank piece of paper. Reminisce about times in your life when you felt truly happy. Who were you with? What were you doing? If today were the last day of your life, how would you spend it? What activities make you lose track of time?
  3. Assess your needs. Now make a list of all the things you know you need to feel your best. How many hours of sleep do you need each night? What foods give you the most energy (and which ones zap it)? How much exercise do you need to feel good? How much fun and laughter? Who supports you and lights you up?
  4. Start small. There’s no need to overhaul your whole life at once. Just pick one thing from the list you created in Step 3: something that you love and a need that makes you feel your best. Now commit to doing that this week. But remember, you can’t just start doing something — you simultaneously need to stop doing something else, like the things you wrote down in Step 1. What or who can you cut out of your life in order to say “Yes” to you?
  5. Track your triumphs and share your process. Gradually add more things from each list into your life, paying attention to how your body and mood feels as you make these changes. Let the people in your life know what you’re doing and why. Saying “No” to others so you can say “Yes” to yourself isn’t always easy. You might even ask friends and family to report back to you the positive changes they see emerging.
  6. Learn how to say “No” skillfully through practice. Saying “No” isn’t easy, especially if you have little experience at it. So you may have to practice, by explaining things like: “Normally I’d love to watch your dog while you’re on vacation, but I have some important plans of my own that week. I might be able to watch the dog for one or two days, but you’ll need to see if someone else can help."
Sara Avant Stover is the author of The Way of the Happy Woman: Living the Best Year of Your Life. She lives in Boulder, Colo., where she teaches yoga and meditation. Visit her online at www.SaraAvantStover.com.