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I stopped saying 'yes' to everyone, and it changed my life

by Laura Delarato /  / Updated 
Image: Morning By The Lake
After a month of worrying only about herself, Delarato was surprised to find all of her relationships stronger. Borut Trdina / Getty Images
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The green icon flashed across the iPhone screen, knocking my attention down at the glowing notification. Reading the text that promised cheap drinks and a lot of dancing, my mind shot myself the sternest thought: You really don’t want to go out. You barely drink. You don’t even really like to dance. Why even entertain the thought of leaving your bed?

One hour later, an elbow is digging into my back as the hit song by the latest pop star blares across a not-so-latest stereo system in a steamy Bushwick basement. My drink is warm, my attitude is cold and my friend is literally nowhere to be found.

This, sadly, is not the sole anti-self moment I have found myself in, but it was the catalyst for my new awareness of the situation, leading me to a weeklong mental checklist of silent “ah ha!” moments.

Before I’ve even arrived at work, I’ve already started my day with my personal well-being on the back burner

It all starts at 6 a.m. when I head to the gym and end up picking machines based on proximity to other people — I don’t want to encroach on personal space even if it means not using the machines I want to. I spend only 45 minutes there so that I can rush home, take a quick showerand hop on the train for an early morning coffee date with a friend. As I walk to the office, I move out of the way for four men as I make my way down Broadway. Before I’ve even arrived at work, I’ve already started my day with my personal well-being on the back burner — which continues into a day of saying yes to projects and coffee dates that I really can't or don’t want to do.

So, why am I doing this? I spoke to clinical psychologist Dr. Jon Belford about the possible reasons behind my urge to say yes to things even when they aren't serving me personally. “There are a number of factors that can contribute to difficulty prioritizing one's own needs. It often can be tied to underlying feelings about one's sense of self worth or irrational, unconscious beliefs about the nature of relationships," he says. "Behaviors such as overcommitting to plans or feeling a need to be constantly available may be tied to a distorted, irrational worry about abandonment.”

He nailed it.

You can imagine the look on my face as I ingested this new information; I began to note the connections between all of the little things I do that aren’t actually that little at all. From the way I move, to where I go, to the extra work I’m constantly taking on, I keep placing my life right behind everyone else's.

Alright, I have the first part down: acknowledge what is happening and be aware of it. The next part: actively take steps to rectifying this behavior. This, of course, is not going to be an overnight shift to being my own personal number one. So, I committed to a 30-day challenge to to do nothing but say yes to myself. To keep this challenge on track I broke out what I personally needed to work on to be numero uno in my own world. For me, this highlighted three categories where I was lacking some much-needed attention: friendships, wellness and dating.

FRIENDSHIPS

I have cultivated a special ride or die friend group over the past few years that would rival many a #squadgoals. But as much as I care for each of them, I’ve definitely compromised my well-being in certain situations because of my need to always put friendships first. There are just so many band shows I can attend and last-minute plan changes I can handle before realizing I’m not getting the same support in return.

While I’m not going on a burning bridges tour, I’ve been more forthcoming with my availability while not apologizing for why I can’t hang. This goes for the closest of friends all the way to random acquaintances — sometimes, I just can’t go out, spend money, drink or even be around other humans. And that’s okay.

In order to give my best to the people I care about, I need to be able to sustainably put myself first when it comes to my relationship with my friends.

This really started to feel like a "me, me, me" endeavor, but in order to give my best to the people I care about, I need to be able to sustainably put myself first when it comes to my relationship with my friends. Life coach and author of “What If It Does Work Out?Susie Moore reiterates this sentiment: “You can't pour from an empty cup! A fulfilled mother, friend, sister, boss is someone who takes care of their personal needs first. They are easier, fun and more relaxed to be around. It's actually a selfless act to do you — not only do you become a more positive force in the world, it inspires other people to take better care of themselves, too.”

WELLNESS

At the onset of this challenge it had been two weeks since I’d worked out or meal prepped and it was starting to show. My skin was dull, my energy levels low and it was taking me a lot longer to find motivation to engage in the activities I love. I’ve been running on fumes going from networking event to networking event while simultaneously trying to juggle work projects that spill over past my 9 to 5. Once I lose my wellness momentum, it takes a major push just to get me back on the bandwagon — even though I know that I will feel better once I find my groove.

The first step to get me back on track: setting daily intentions. It’s a small yet mindful way to keep yourself in check throughout your day. Sticking to a ritual or changing the background on your phone’s wallpaper to a positive reminder (cliché, I know) actually makes a big difference when your day has gotten the best of your ‘you-first’ journey. Having a constant reminder that you’re number one is a helpful way to guide your brain back to the right place.

Instead of putting a restrictive diet or regimented workout plan in place for the weeks ahead, I opted to make decisions based on what I needed in the moment. Do I need carbs right now? Yes. Do I need to run for two hours this morning even though I had a late night last night? No. Do I want that cookie? Not really. Is yoga going to feel good to me at 9 a.m. on a Saturday? Definitely. It’s all about doing what feels right, right now. This step towards putting my body and energy first made it easier to make snap decisions — it forced me to slow down and really ask what I needed in the moment.

Wellness, for me, also very much includes the environments that I allowing myself to engage with ... like parties filled with overpriced drinks and far too many people for one tiny room — I’m unfollowing this narrative. Let me be clear: Go have your fun! Do what makes you happy. I’m not big into crowds and I’m honestly the worst when I have any alcohol in my system. Now, instead of answering a text from a friend with the impulsive "you must go" attitude, I’m simply going to decline. Expending all my energy on stuff I don’t actually want to do can take away from the things that interest me!

DATING

Ah, this one.

I’m 30 — a fact that I’m constantly reminded of when people ask me if I’m seeing someone; consistently followed up by the “you better get a move on” tonality. For some reason, there is an air of devalue swarming your presence when you’re not one of the lucky ones to have found your perfect match. As if you’re broken. This reverberates every time I hold a friend’s baby or when I receive another summer wedding invite. I might as well wear a sign that reads: “No, I’m not married. Yes, I’m single.”

Truthfully, I don’t want to get married or have kids. I’d like to find a mate. But maybe we keep our separate apartments and go about our lives without having to invite each other to every single family event. We have conversations about marriage and kids, but would much rather spend that money on a cruise with an all-you-can eat package and water slide. Taking the time to understand what I want removes that pressure of dating/marriage as a status symbol, and asking myself what I truly need has more worth to me than finding a person to hold my hand at work events.

In honor of my 30 days of doing me, I decided to put in a tiny rule for all potential dates: not going out of my way (i.e. I’m not traveling above 14th street on a work night). How many times have I gone to meet someone super far from my apartment to find out they’re actually a horrible human? Too many. I put myself first and texted back, “You can meet me in Brooklyn at 7:30 p.m.” Yeah, some people won’t bite (possibly on their own self-first journey?) but having a simple rule like this helped me weed out dates that weren’t worth my time — making room for the babes that are down to come out to Bushwick and sit in a cozy loveseat at a clandestine bar.

AM I WORTH IT?

During my 30 days, I kept coming back to one singular question: What makes me special enough to put my own well-being in front of everyone else's? Every acclamation of self-care curtains my insides with a narcissistic feeling; I am constantly wondering if my inability to compromise when I have a headache or feel super tired is making me a terrible person.

Belford addressed this personal concern: “Narcissists generally won’t be concerned about being narcissistic, it is a thought that would never enter their mind. Putting oneself first is healthy when it is based on prioritizing one's mental, spiritual and physical health in a way that will facilitate optimal growth, functioning and foster a mindful, grounded sense of being. It is geared towards optimal emotional well being versus gratifying the narcissistic needs of the ego.”

Am I a narcissist? The answer to this one is no. Phew.

Once I got over this minor speed bump, I am happy to report that things changed. After 30 days of only saying yes to myself, I’m more intuitive with my mental and physical requisites. It’s easier for me to make late-night decisions without worrying if I’m going to miss the rest of the party — if I’m tired, I’m going home.

I kept coming back to one singular question: What makes me special enough to put my own well-being in front of everyone else's?

My entire morning routine has also changed: I head to the gym at 7:30 a.m. and go to the machines I want to use — if no one else is using it; I’m assertive not rude! I get a full workout in before heading home, eating breakfast and then taking a shower. I stand firm as I walk down the street without moving out of the way for any person that comes into my personal space. I make coffee arrangements based on my time, and regularly check in on my bandwidth to make sure I can reasonably handle extra work. The background of my iPhone reads: “It’s okay to say no if it’s not helping you.”

This month-long journey, at times, felt like a me-only navigation through life; making decisions based on how I (and only I) felt. I honestly thought by the end of it I’d have zero friends and nil prospects for dating — quite the opposite in fact. Every friendship is stronger; giving each person my everything when I’m with them. Dating, while occurring less often, is happening with people who are 100 percent more attuned to our mutual interests. I make good decisions based off what I need in the moment. Sometimes, I fail and schedule an appointment too late and wake up too early, causing that exhausted feeling I struggled to eliminate. But in those moments, I look down at my phone and put my mindset back on track.

“It’s okay to say no.”

This article originally appeared on NBC's BETTER.

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