It was a Wednesday night, hours after I should have gone to bed to be sane for the next day, and I had just opened another can of Pepsi. The sugar and caffeine had kept me on an artificial high, my heightened anxiety lending another swirl to the adrenaline.
My eyes hurt and I could barely focus on the screen, the checklist I had ambitiously set out to complete hours before sending me into a daze and overwhelmed confusion when I happened to glance over at it.
Task after task, commitment after commitment, I had overwhelmed myself to a point in which I felt there was no return, that the only thing possible for me was just to cry.
I just couldn’t do it anymore.
Here I was, 23 years old, two years out of college, suffering from a serious case of overcommitment. It used to be a thing I prided myself on – the ability to say yes, to maintain a facade that everything I was tackling was not causing me to snap. People marveled at the fact that I seemed to have my fingers in everything. Bogged down with involvement in one full-time job, three startups, three organizations, four publications and whatever new idea I had come up with that week, I had come to my breaking point that night.
My tears wouldn’t stop falling down my face.
They were smearing the post-it notes of things that I still needed to finish, things that could never even have a chance of completion with the time humans are allotted – but things I was dealing with because I could not bring myself to say no.
That word was not in my vocabulary. Growing up, I would hear how people spoke with awe about my invincible mother. She had homeschooled all eight of us kids and now had founded her own human rights organization. “What a superhero!” People would marvel, “How does she do it?” I craved the chance to be considered even marginally close to her strength, lusted after her ability to juggle everything in the world, and still make dinner.
It was a feeling I worked towards the moment I had the chance to decide my own schedule. In the process, I began making decisions to put my work and commitments over my sanity and self-preservation. When I was younger, my nightmare was that my family would forget me – now, my nightmare took a new twist: that I would one day lose everything that I had, a psychotic break, a loss of my abilities. It was terrifying, keeping me in a perpetual state of saying yes.
Yes, I can get that work done. Yes, I can get that piece written. Yes, I can join your startup. Yes, I’ll work for no pay. Yes, your unpaid deadlines come before the work that will let me pay this month’s rent.
The more I said yes, the more people asked me to say yes. To those around me, my flow of work seemed to be unlimited, but to myself, I found myself slowing crumbling within. Undefined by boundaries and struggling with placing limitations on the work I was asked to do, I found myself being taken advantage of, day in and day out. Each task was marked “urgent”, each opportunity for exposure noted as “important.”
So one day, I stopped saying yes.
My inbox spat out the latest request for my time, a person I had never met asking me to intern for their organization. “It would be a great experience,” they said. “Unpaid, of course.” Immediately, my heart started racing, but this time, it was out of adrenaline, not fear. I relished the moment I hit send.
“No, but thanks for asking.”
Suddenly, the flood of saying no was unleashed. I began trimming away at the strings that held me pinned to the ground, each clean snip one step closer to floating towards the sky. I didn’t care if people thought me to be selfish, uncompromising, unwilling to “help out just this one time.”
It was intoxicating to only do things that I truly loved – to not feel guilty about sleeping in on a Saturday. With every no, I found myself saying yes – to my self, my sanity, my worth. I refused to say yes to another night of late hours, overcommitment, and uncertainty.
By saying no, I had finally found my freedom – and I’ll never let that go.