I used to be a “Yes” woman.
I lived my life thinking by saying “yes,” people would value me more. That thinking cost me my health and entire life savings.
To heal from viral-onset myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS), I had to change my yes-woman ways because it was causing major setbacks to my recovery. The more I tried to be everything, the less I was able to do, often leaving me without enough energy to walk to my street corner.
I am amazed at how far I have come, and I cannot underestimate the power of setting boundaries. Here are 9 boundaries that have been helpful to my health recovery and continued wellbeing (click to expand):
The old me had many immobilizing post-exertional crashes because I simply tried to “go with the flow.”
On the occasional “good day” during my three-year journey with ME/CFS that permitted being social with other humans, I would be hesitant about asking others to slow down when walking. One time, I waited in the cold fog for a bus that never came because my friend didn’t want to split a Lyft.
Setting my own pace was key for my recovery. It meant getting that wheel-chair assist. It meant not staying up late for my partner. It meant asking my friends if they could come to my house. Or canceling. It meant asking others if they could run to get the car and pick me up. It meant taking a Lyft 3 blocks on my own while others walked on.
Now that I’ve regained my energy for over a year, I still set my own pace.
Several months ago, my husband and I went to a sports game with friends. Our Uber arrived early after the game, which ended very late. My husband started sprinting through the crowd to catch it. “Come on!” he said, waving me from somewhere ahead in the crowd.
I was unmoved. I didn’t even justify it. I was relaxed and going at my own brisk pace, and just let him run off. It all worked out.
I used to be TERRIBLE at saying “bye.” Whether on the phone or at dinner (either at my place or theirs), I somehow couldn’t utter these three letters.
In my earlier life, I was often the last one to leave the party. I let others say “bye” when they were ready to go or end the conversation.
When my energy levels sunk to a baseline of 25% and overexertion caused paralyzing crashes that took a minimum of 10 days to recover from, this wasn’t sustainable. Nevertheless, I believed I needed some worthy explanation or perfect excuse to exit. Occasionally, I’d create a gameplan with my husband on when we were supposed to leave. However, I put the onus on him to say “bye,” which didn’t always end so well.
I have since assumed personal responsibility for saying “bye” and letting go of any need for the “perfect excuse” — or any! I feel so passionately about this, I made a permission slip that allows you to say “no” and leave without any excuse (hint: it’s from yourself):
Your permission slip to put your health first.
Now that I’ve regained my health, I still use my permission slip.
This New Year’s Eve, instead of waiting up for a college friend and her husband who were running late to my best friend’s little get together, my husband and I left some food we made for them and called it a night early. What better way to start the year than keeping my body in a good circadian rhythm!
Good health doesn’t mean “pushing through” and destroying our bodies for our friends.
In the past, I used to wait for others to give me what I needed, then blame them and myself when things didn’t work out. I felt like a buzz-kill simply for asking about the ingredients in something or if we could sit down and take a break. This ended in countless epic disasters.
After the epiphany which led to my “permission slip to myself,” I began to change my ways. Now, I claim what I need. I ask without giving all the reasons why. I say “No, That one” at the grocery store counter. I order exactly what I want at the restaurant how I want it. I ask to be seated at the better table. (Note: I eat 98% of my meals at home and 100% now with the lockdown.) I take action when it comes to my health and happiness.
If traveling or visiting family or friends, I communicate my preferences ahead of time instead of “hoping for the best” and getting frustrated when it doesn’t work out. I also speak up in the moment, since things never go according to plan.
I grab life by the horns instead of letting it happen to me.
I take decisive action if the situation requires to ensure my needs are met. And if not, I do my best to let go rather than going into a thought spiral that feeds a feeling of powerlessness.
I used to absorb others’ energy and react to it. When I realized a couple years into my health journey that others’ negative energy was negatively impacting my health, I began to become angry and resentful at people for dumping their negativity on me. “How dare you burst my positivity bubble!”
I realized that other’s energy cannot affect me — only my interpretation and chosen reaction to it.
And now, if someone has a negative reaction to something I say or do — I try not to go into defense attorney mode. How many times in the past did I “win” the argument but only make things worse?
I get what I need to say out of my chest, then leave it there. Instead of reacting to their response (old me: “how can I tear apart these arguments one by one?”), I try to allow others to say what they need to say, while going to my happy place (new me: “I’m listening and also imagining us getting along.”) Amazingly, people come around because of this approach, and we’re both happier.
My family could tell you I’m by no means perfect at this, but this is something I strive to remember.
This is a big one.
I described myself in a fourth-grade class assignment that my mom framed as “prompt.” I carried this trait (coping mechanism) from youth into adulthood.
For whatever reason, I had a compelling need to respond immediately to any email, text, or Facebook message. It hurt me to leave someone waiting.
Before my health downfall, I managed international projects and social media for a large tech company. I was constantly in reactive mode from the second I woke up. When salespeople messaged me on Slack if I could fulfill their prospective client’s crazy requests, within seconds, I almost always said “yes, I can do it!”
Then ME/CFS happened, and on many days I lacked the cognitive ability to even look at a screen. It’s hard to describe this to anyone unless you’ve been there.
Living my life as if everything was an emergency and on others’ schedules was not healthy or sustainable. Learning to respond on my own time and say “no” was helpful for my health recovery.
I’ve learned that when I wait to respond, my response is much more thoughtful. It also creates a healthier dynamic between me and the other person where there is less pressure.
Every morning, I do my routine before anything else.
Instead of responding to an email or immediately weighing in on my best friend’s love life in our group chat, I go through around seven daily rituals that keep me calm. (It helps that I keep my phone in airplane mode in the kitchen at night, so I’m not visually bombarded when I awake.)
The old me put a desire to please others before my health. I’ve learned that no one is any less happy when I prioritize my own schedule. In fact, I’m able to give so much more to my friends and loved ones because of the sustainable lifestyle changes I made. I love supporting my friends, just after I eat breakfast.
My heart wants to reach out to everyone in need. In the past, I took on others burdens as if they were my very own. I wore my empathy as a badge of honor. I felt the feelings of others — everyone except the happy and healthy ones.
When I had a symptom remission two years into my health journey (I was able to go on short walks and the fog lifted), I immediately felt called to save everyone in my neighborhood and the world with ME/CFS as well as every family member, friend, and acquaintance with any health issue.
I’d ship out quality supplements and dole out positive encouragement and diet advice (thinking I had found the “answer” for it all; I had not). If you received these, I hope we can laugh about it now.
During this time, I used part of my newfound mental capacity towards Internet outreach. To anyone’s recount of a diagnostic dilemma, misunderstanding from family, or mistreatment from the system, I’d reply “That’s terrible” or many times, “I’ve been there, too!”
I eventually relapsed from a confluence of minor environmental stressors, but I suspected the mounting pressure to save the world and reliving my trauma everyday on the Internet contributed to it. To fully get out of ME/CFS, I had to do many things, which included putting my health first and focusing on joy.
In early 2019, from a recommendation by a limbic system recovery program, I asked friends and family if we could avoid discussing any health symptoms (theirs, mine, anyone’s) or any negative daily drama. (Important life stuff, okay.) I also realized talking about scary world events, crime, or debating politics also stressed me out, so I asked if we could not talk about that either.
With family, we’re extremely direct, so it was easy for me to ask them this. However, some family members needed a LOT of reminders. In practice, this meant interrupting them if they started to talk about certain stuff, and requesting they change the topic.
My best friends were initially taken aback, but were soon very supportive. They at first said “Well we understand if you don’t want to talk about those things Liz, but we’d still like to.” Things were a bit uncomfortable at first. I temporarily left our group chat – I knew I had to do this for my nervous system. Thankfully they reached back out and were very understanding when I explained how this stuff would send my fight-or-flight system into alarm mode and resulted into worry, Googling, and sleepness nights on how to solve their personal problems and health stuff (because I care about them so much and because my nervous system was already in overdrive). And if they wanted advice about a struggle, they’d just message another friend directly vs me or our group chat.
Though I haven’t always been consistent on my end (with reminders & a couple times I might have violated my own requests), I deeply cherish my friends’ support. I honestly think it was even a little piece of my healing, having that place of safety and joy. Our hilarious group chats continue to always brighten my day. They have said the same thing. One of my best friends commented how much she prefers our group chat to her group chats with other friend groups, which she said are usually complaining about stuff or debating stuff in sometimes heated arguments.
A few months into doing the limbic system recovery program and making the request for my friends and family to stick to positive topics, I remember realizing how impactful it was. I was on a plane. The woman sitting next to me was frantically try to respond to her friend who was blasting her phone with details about her terrible day before take off. It was just emotional dumping and alarm about very minor things (I may have caught a glimpse of her screen), and I realize a lot of people live their entire lives like this. The lady was trying to keep up with words of support and emojis. It made me very grateful for my friends and also thankful that I actually made the request to them (vs being afraid they wouldn’t like me anymore).
Update 2022: My friends and I continue to have uplifting, hilarious, and supportive chats. I’m now in a resilient place where I feel comfortable talking about topics that would have caused alarm, however I still convey to people (Instagram followers, friends, family) that I prefer not to talk in detail about symptoms and struggles. Since I’ve made my preferences clear, I really don’t have to do that many reminders these days.
I am 100% there for my closest friends when it really matters and they are likewise for me. Sometimes we just need a friend to listen or lift us up. And if a friend is going through a rough time, I’ll also send them a card with some heartfelt words and humor (because that’s my style). If a friend is having the same struggle and going in a dead-end thought spiral, I’ll point it out, share what’s worked for me (vs telling them what they should do), and shift the conversation. And I appreciate when friends or loved ones do this for me.
With friends and people on the Internet, I no longer try to solve their problems for them like I’ve done in the past. For blog subscribers and social media followers, I send people resources, but I do not feel compelled to save them or troubleshoot their issues (which is actually disempowering I’ve realized because a key part of this journey is learning to act on our own intuition).
Nowadays, I continue to limit sad parts of the Internet and surround myself with inspiration. While I feel like I could always be doing more, I try to contribute to causes I care about rather than trying to solve another individual’s problems (though I’m still only human).
I found that communicating what I wanted helped get me what I wanted, while dwelling on the negative and what I didn’t want was not effective.
For example, when I once told someone “I can’t drink alcohol because it will cause crazy symptoms,” I got, “What about some vodka?” (They were Australian.)
I learned it was possible for me to say “no” with a recovery mindset. Here are four ways I do this:
- I Change Can’ts to Preferences. Example: “I’d actually love some water.”
- I Don’t Ask Permission and Instead State My Decision. Example: “I’m doing this.”
- I Don’t Apologize; I Express Gratitude. Example: “Thank you for your help and understanding.”
- I Say No Without a Because. Example: “I’m not able to.” Rather than, “I can’t because [Sad Story].”
I found that minor word choice changes made a world of difference. Here is a post with some more examples of how I took my power back by changing the way I talked about my health.
A friend on her road to recovery from ME/CFS shared with me a brilliant boundary: “I don’t try to fill the space.”
“I’ve been trained that I need to make constant conversation, especially if someone else is quiet, which is unnecessary and draining. This takes a lot of effort on my part to remind myself silently that “it’s okay not to fill out the silence.” This doesn’t mean I ignore someone else if they’re clearly in distress, but allowing the conversation to flow naturally has allowed me to reserve my energy. It also gives the other person space to communicate.” – Adriane
This hit home for me.
I now don’t think of boundaries as limitations, but rather as “Choices to Facilitate Thriving.” Or as Shannon Algeo says, “Boundaries are the means through which we teach others how you want to be loved.” I love this.