By Jennifer MacKinday
I gave up. Okay, maybe I didn’t give up. But I definitely gave in. Over time, as it became clear that caregiving was to be a prominent part of my life, I gave in to the notion that personal goals weren’t as important as my commitments to others. Because our family had benefited so greatly by the help of others during the most crucial times of healing and recovery, I also felt called to help other military families and their caregivers overcome their obstacles.
As a caregiver, I excel. I am organized, I do plenty of research, and I am tirelessly committed to making sure my brother gets the care he needs and deserves. Modeling the care and concern I’ve received from other military caregivers over the years, I found myself applying that same passion and dedication to anyone who asked me for help. Soon, I found myself successful at being a caregiver and an advocate. However, that success came my way at a price.
We sometimes joke at my house about the ‘Sweat Pants Years’. Don’t let the catchy phrase fool you; the sweat pants years were by no means leisurely. Those are the years in my life when I paid little attention to myself. Instead, my days were spent volunteering, advocating for military families on a number of platforms, and freely giving of my time to families in crisis. I wore sweats almost all of the time because I was either on the go or on my computer-fashion was of little concern.
I became crazy busy with more obligations than you can imagine. I did it all to myself and I loved being active and busy, but my workload began snowballing. Soon, I was overwhelmed with social media messages, emails, phone calls, and text messages, many from people I had never even met. It became physically impossible for me to respond to them all. I wasn’t purposefully ignoring them, but I honestly received over 200 communications every day. Soon, tremendous feelings of guilt set in when someone would mention that they tried to reach me but didn’t hear back.
All the while, I was denying myself and those closest to me the most valuable resource I have to offer: me. It wasn’t until my doctor pointed out, while lecturing me about my increasing blood pressure and lack of self-care, that people-pleasing tendencies create stress and inefficient production cycles. Right there in the exam room she said, “Repeat after me. No.”
I laughed, and she shook her finger. “I mean it. If you keep giving and don’t start saying no, your health will be in real trouble. What kind of caregiver will you be then?”
Ouch. Those words stung. I left the office with blood pressure medication, a list of breathing exercises to practice, and a note from the doctor that read “NO.” When I got home, I made a list of all the roles in my life that demand my time: wife, work, military caregiver, military mom, elderly dog owner, military advocate, Boy Scout leader, and community volunteer. Overriding all those important roles was the role I was allowing to take over my life: The role of people-pleaser. It was time for some tough decisions about all the commitments in my life.

For many caregivers, the most important work of our lives is compassionately caring for others, and we don’t say ‘NO’ often enough. With our ever-connected lives, it’s incredibly easy to people-please 24/7, anytime and anywhere. Ding. Ring. Beep. Buzz. We’ve conditioned ourselves to react to any and every alert.
Saying ‘NO’ isn’t easy at first, but with practice you can do it. By taking the reins of your time you will not only help preserve your most valuable resource, you’ll also grow personally and professionally. You’ll become less stressed, have more time and saying ‘YES’ to a project or activity will be fun!
Here are four simple ways that you can say ‘NO’.
1. “I can’t. I have other obligations right now.”
2. “If I had the time, I’d love to do this, but now isn’t a good time for me.”
3. “I’ll keep this in mind, but it doesn’t fit with my schedule now.”
4. “No, I can’t.”
Go ahead practice them. Record yourself saying these phrases. Then play the recording back, a few times. Practice makes perfect. These answers let the requestor know your plate is full. They are simple and direct. They don’t need any explanation, either. I guarantee you’ll be surprised when the response to your newfound empowerment isn’t as bad as what you imagined.
Learning to say “NO” is getting easier for me. I have more time for myself, work and the things that are most important in my life. I’ve learned that I can say “NO” and not feel guilty or let someone else down. And I’ve also reminded myself that the most important part of being a great caregiver is taking care of myself.