Saving Yourself: That Little Two-Letter Word That Begins With N

Reader Contribution by Staff
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In 1976, I began my first teaching job at the University of Colorado in Denver. It was a dream come true. Eager to do my best and make a career out of teaching and research, I soon found that I had piled on so much work that I worked extremely long hours, easily 10 to 14 hours a day, rarely stopping to take a break.

Not to waste a second, I would bury my nose in a book on my morning and evening bus commute to and from the University. Most evenings I spent reading books and articles that expanded my knowledge. I even worked most of my summer without pay, doing my research and expanding my knowledge.

During the spring and fall semesters, I was required by the University to teach two classes each semester. I typically taught three — the extra one for no pay. Why the overload? 

Part of the reason for taking on more than I was required had to do with impressing the dean of the college and my department chair. Part of it had to do with hopes of earning a decent pay raise. Anorther portion had to do with an eagerness to know more. It is through teaching a subject that one truly masters it. And, finally, a good reason for my running in constant overdrive was a nagging sense that whatever I did, it wasn’t quite enough. Plagued with a nagging sense of inferiority, I have spent most of my life over achieving.

When you become one who achieves a great deal, others catch on, too. The old adage if you want something done, ask a busy person, is true. So, on top of all my self-imposed overload, came volunteer work. I testified before the air pollution control commission. I wrote dozens of articles for environmental publications — for no pay. I took on additional faculty responsibilities because other faculty kept asking if I would take on a little more to help out this committee or that one. Being one who loves to help others, I never refused.

Unfortunately, my good nature and sense of helpfulness made my life a living hell. I was always pressed for time and became extremely stressed.  Every time spring break arrived, I’d get ill and spend the week in bed with a cold or flu. It was my body’s way of saying, ‘take a break, dude.’

One day, on my way to class, I ran into a favorite colleague of mine, a psychology professor with a wonderfully delightful personality. We chatted for a while and I began complaining about my exhuasting workload. I noted that people kept piling on more and more work.

She looked at me and smiled her sweet, knowing smile, then said, “Dan, there’s this little two letter word that begins with an n.” I smiled, laughed, and went on my way. I didn’t think much about her comment. I had, at the time, no inclination to say no.

Like so many lessons in life, this one sank in slowly. 

Today, I still take on a lot of work, I have learned to say no to others and to myself. That’s one reason I haven’t written a blog in five or six weeks. I’ve been finishing building my house to replace my house that was burned to the ground two years ago. I’ve also have been revising one of my college textbooks, Human Biology. When I started that project at the beginning of December, I had to say no to myself — and to my readers. I knew I’d begin writing more blogs when I finish my revision.

I’d wager that many of my faithful cadre of readers suffer from a similar problem, especially the kind and loving women who are reading this blog.

It’s been my experience that women are especially vulnerable to my malady — my inability to say no. In caring for children, spouses, ailing mothers and fathers, and hungry dogs and cats, women often subjugate their needs for the sake of others.  

Unfortunately, there’s almost always a price for this. Many are overly stressed. Some people grow resentful. Life becomes a chore, not a pleasure. Most people who sacrifice their free time to help others would give their eye teeth for a few hours a week of just plain old “me time.”

Over the years,  I’ve found several remedies for my penchant for overworking. The one I want to discuss here is carving out me time. Being a little selfish, in a good way. That occurs by raising a flag emblazoned with that little two-letter word that starts with an n. 

No, sweetie, I told my boys, I am busy right now, the peanut butter and jelly are in the kitchen. You can make yourself a sandwich. I’m relaxing this moment.

The answer is to call on others around you to take care of themselves. Draw boundaries. Help your dependents learn to take responsibility for their own hunger or thirst or lack of planning. When it comes to our children, parental “forcing” of responsibility is a good thing. It will make your children better people, and much better — less dependent — spouses.

I tried to encourage my boys to take responsibility for drinks and snacks. Why not? Dad’s not going to be around forever to run to the kitchen to make them something to eat. At some point, they’re going to have to care for themselves.

As you learn to say no, gracefully, you’ll find yourself relaxing a wee bit. You’ll find that you can sit on the front step or lie in the hammock for a few minutes listening to the sweet melodies of song birds’ song or peer up at the evening sky, living moments of your own life just for you. That’s the power of that little two letter word that starts with an n.