Although Minority Mental Health Month has come to an end, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take care of ourselves anymore. I strongly believe that mental health care, just like physical health care, needs to be proactive and not just reactive. We don’t need to wait for an incident that pushes us over the brink into darkness for us to think about our mental wellbeing. It should be a daily ritual to nurture and nourish our minds and emotions, just as we would do with our bodies.
I think one of the biggest tools in protecting our mental health is our ability to say “no.” Growing up in a South Asian community, I’ve noticed that respecting your elders has often become synonymous with never saying “no.” Of course, you shouldn’t disrespect anyone, not just your elders, but this also doesn’t mean giving in to requests or demands that harm you. It might start off with harmless intentions, such as not refusing to help someone in need, but it can quickly burgeon into a habit that does more harm than good. It is okay to say no.
Let’s put this into context. You are overwhelmed with schoolwork, deadlines, upcoming exams, and there is so much to do but very little time. At the same time, a friend you haven’t seen in awhile hits you up and asks you to get dinner that night to catch up. Now you know if you go to dinner it’ll take much longer than a typical dinner because of all the talking and catching up and you know that you don’t have that kind of time to sacrifice. The logical decision would be to say that you are busy, but you will definitely reach out to make plans when things calm down. However, you are compelled to say yes to not let your friend down. Just like that, you’re at dinner for a few hours, and your mind becomes restless about how much work you have to finish and all the deadlines that are fast approaching.
As a woman, I feel we fall more victim to the “say yes” trap than others because of the expectations placed on us. If a woman says no to a social event because she is busy with work, she’ll probably be perceived as stuck-up and pretentious. If a man says no to a social event for the same reason, he’s hardworking and successful. This plays right into the devaluation of women’s work.
These perceptions may sway women into sacrificing their mental health and stretching themselves thin in order to avoid being labeled. However, we can reclaim our power over our lives by simply saying, “no.” By saying “no,” we are valuing our time and work. Saying “no” doesn’t mean you’re disrespectful or disobedient. It means you know your limits, and you don’t owe anyone anything. If all of this doesn’t convince you, just remember: you can’t help others by harming yourself. Saying “no” is an act of self-care. I’ll leave you with this quote by Audre Lorde that aptly summarizes this:
Audre Lorde, “A Burst of Light” and Other Essays”
Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.