The pain of saying ‘no’

Recently I got to say yes to something I’ve been having to say no to for years. I got to go to my first festival! I went to Greenman in Wales and it was amazing. The setting was beautiful, the music was mind-blowing and I went with a wonderful group of friends. It was a dream come true and there were many special moments. Being able to see Laura Marling sing, when I’d spent so many days bed bound listening to her songs to soothe me, was very moving. I counted my blessings when I managed to get through every day of that festival with hardly any M.E. symptoms, I was on cloud nine. But unfortunately all good things must come to an end.

I continued to say yes when I should have started to say no. I rested on my first day back but by the evening I went back to normal routine, meeting up with a friend in need. The next day I got back to work because I felt guilty doing nothing. By the evening of the second day I had relapsed. I had been riding on a wave of adrenaline and it crashed. My muscles shaked, spasmed and ached. I couldn’t breathe, I felt dizzy, my limbs went weak. I hadn’t felt that bad in ages and I was so angry at myself. I had been stupid and let myself down. I cried angry tears for a while and did some Emotional Freedom Technique tapping even though I was so tired I could only touch on the points. After another sleepless night (no sleep during M.E. relapses no matter how tired you are) I realised I needed to stop beating myself up for the mistake I made and focus on what I needed to do to help myself.

This was the next mountain to climb; I’d rather beat myself up for days than have to say no to people. I had to cancel a driving lesson, drinks with a best friend who’s leaving for Australia soon, dinner with another best friend who I miss dearly and my voluntary work shift. I’m hoping upon hope that I don’t have to say no to supporting my friends at their music event tomorrow night. With all the joy I’d been feeling at getting to say yes, I’d forgotten how painful it is to say no. With every email and text message I had to send my heart ached and my stomach tensed as the guilt and anxiety of possibly upsetting or annoying a friend engulfed me. What if they think I’m making it up? What if they think I just don’t want to see them? What if they never invite me do something again? I know all these fears are irrational but it doesn’t stop them going round my head. So here I am forced to say no and to rest and I’m left alone with no distraction for the guilt it causes me.

I’ve spoken about dealing with unhelpful thoughts before, at the Optimum Health Clinic we were told to tell them to “f**k off!” and to use the Stop Process which involves analysing how helpful the thought is and what would be a more helpful thought instead. So here goes:

Thought: “I’m worried that I have upset/annoyed my friends by having to cancel our plans”

What would happen if I carried on thinking this way? “I would feel very guilty and depressed and that would make it harder for me to recover from my current relapse”

What would be helpful instead? “I could communicate these fears to my friends as I know they would reassure me that they understand that I have to cancel because they just want me to get better. I should use this time to rest effectively so I can get better for them and for myself”

Praise yourself for your hard work! It is all too easy to sit and wallow in unhelpful thoughts.

How do you feel now? “A little less stressed and upset. I fell clearer in my head to make the decisions I need to help myself get better. Like eating lunch!”


Saying no in order to help yourself is hard but necessary. There are analogies about how you can’t pour from an empty cup or how you should put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. In our society we have been conditioned to always put other people before ourselves, but when we’re running on empty we’re no good to those we want to help. I realise now that I am helping both myself and my loved ones better when I take time to make sure I’m well first.


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