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Self-Care in Middle Age: When It’s Okay to Say No

Ways to avoid the stress of always saying yes to commitments


Saying no might be one of the healthiest decisions you can make in your fifties and sixties. That’s because your physical and mental health is directly correlated to the activities and tasks you sign up for. All of us are given 24 hours in a day and we need to choose wisely.

Not surprisingly, Boomers are not very good at saying no. We’re card-carrying members of the Sandwich Generation — often caring for aging parents at the same time as our partners and grown children. We’re not ones to turn away from an opportunity to chair a committee for a cause dear to our hearts, which may coincide with taking Mom or Dad to frequent doctor appointments.

We’re famous for relishing long work weeks and we take parenting to a new level, ever-involved in our children and grandchildren’s lives, whether by invitation or not. And so we avoid conflict by saying yes to multiple requests for babysitting, volunteering, caregiving for an aging parent and taking on extra projects at work, because we don’t want to let others down or make ourselves look bad.

We avoid saying no because we are human and wired for pleasure, avoiding, at all costs, confrontational conversations. And so, in the short term, we mostly say yes—a temporary feel-good measure that often results in tensions simmering at a slow boil. When stress levels rise, our resentment returns with a vengeance.

The Stress of Yes

Portland State University’s Institute on Aging studied 650 adults over a two-year period and discovered prolonged conflict was significantly associated with a high number of negative health conditions, as stress dampens the immune system. When we’re saying yes to requests that we’d much rather avoid, it pushes our beliefs and behaviors out of harmony. This kind of cognitive dissonance causes horrible discomfort and irritability—a vicious circle that results in depression, anxiety, even Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, according to The British Journal of Psychiatry.

So how do we learn to say NO with grace?

It starts with valuing the importance of what saying no means to our daily lives. Whether we are retired or still part of the workforce, we need to acknowledge that our time is precious currency that should be spent with great care. We want our days to be filled with a variety of familial, civic and work-related responsibilities that we highly honor.

But we need to also honor the responsibility we have to ourselves, which includes getting enough sleep, exercising, feeding ourselves spiritually and generally recharging. When we start to say no to requests that are ancillary, we are essentially saying yes to what renews us.

Overcoming Guilt Feelings

If we paid better attention to the instances when we did muster the courage to say no, we’d realize that our world did not implode and our loved ones did not excommunicate us from family gatherings. Instead, we pay the greatest attention to the rare occasion when someone did push back on us with a vengeance and we felt guilty. The truth is that our friends, relatives and bosses usually accept our decision to say no. It helps to observe how others effectively say no, as well. When we watch them carry on with little repercussion, the lesson is learned. When you finally consider what’s important and realize that saying no to others holds your values in high esteem, you’ll be more inclined to eliminate unwanted, unnecessary obligations in your life.

If you’re feeling pressured to sign up for something you are unsure you really want to do, simply buy some time. Let the requester know that you need to check your calendar before you commit to anything. Then take the time to evaluate whether you want to agree or otherwise. Or simply say that you need some time to think about it — and let them know when you will make your decision. Ghosting them without a decision will only prolong your stress—make sure you give them a decision when promised.

Pay Attention to Ebbs and Flows

There’s light at the end of this tunnel. Saying no gives you the bandwidth to start building your criteria for yes projects: lost passions or hobbies like art or music, activities that jazz you such as tuning into nature, or things that will be important to you later in life, such as downsizing your possessions so that you can someday move to your dream destination.

Remember that there’s a silver lining when you are pulled by multiple requests for your energy and time. When you feel stretched too thin, it means that your life is enriched with people and meaningful work that needs you.

But those with the fullest of lives will have busy periods and lulls as well. When requests for your time get out of hand, reminding yourself that this too shall pass may help you manage the ebbs and flows. By saying no wisely, you can prioritize your time through the busy stretches.

By Phyllis L. Cohen
Phyllis L. Cohen  has been an executive recruiter for Fortune 50 firms for over 25 years as well as a freelance writer specializing in how boomers navigate their careers.

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