Rachael Todd of Return To Flow discusses how we’ve been conditioned to fear the word “no,” and how we can relearn to prioritize our needs for happier, more balanced lives.

What does self love mean to you? Taking a bubble bath after a long day of work? Talking kindly to yourself after you make a mistake? Making the choice to not compare yourself to the fitness model on Instagram? 

While these are all amazing ways to show yourself compassion, what if self love took on an even more radical meaning? What if self love meant choosing yourself over everyone else by only doing what feels good to you and saying no to all the rest?

It’s a very radical idea that’s difficult for most people to accept, and rightly so. Many of us have been conditioned our whole lives to put everyone else’s needs before our own. But anyone with children can attest to the fact  that we weren’t always this way. For many of us, our favorite word to say as toddlers was “no.” It was how we asserted our independence and declared what we needed from the world, exemplifying the most radical form of self love. When we were hungry, we ate. When we wanted to play, we ran around outside. When we were tired, we rested. We listened to our bodies and did exactly as they asked. 

As we got older and more attuned to the world’s expectations of us, we were slowly taught that we shouldn’t operate this way. For most, it began in school. You could only eat, play, and use the bathroom at certain times, without your body’s needs taken into account. You were only allowed to write in pencil on your homework even if you preferred the permanence of a pen. You could only speak when asked to, regardless of if you had something important to say. If we didn’t listen, we were scolded. If we obliged, we were praised. We deduced from these restrictions that if we want to do well in the world and receive acceptance and accolades, we have to ignore our own needs and instead prioritize the desires of those around us. 

This way of operating has followed us into adulthood where, in the modern working world, it’s not unusual to skip meals for back-to-back meetings or miss family events for late night work sessions. To appear hardworking and committed, we start to neglect what’s important and truly matters to us.  Most importantly, we start to neglect ourselves. Small sacrifices turn into daily norms and before we know it, all of our time and energy is dedicated to being seen as a high performer at work. Meanwhile our emotional, social, and physical needs are left on the perpetual back burner. 

The way we are collectively choosing to work and operate is toxic. It has led us into a vicious cycle of stress and exhaustion, which can eventually lead to a vicious cycle of disease and depression. The only way to escape it is to stand up for ourselves and prioritize our own needs. 

We need to come back to our true selves by engaging in the most radical form of self love there is – setting boundaries and saying no. That means making the active choice to put yourself first, even if it’s inconvenient for others. That seemingly “selfish” choice can be terrifying at first, but it’s so rewarding once it becomes your new norm. After settling into this new way of being, you’ll slowly realize that putting yourself first means you’re showing up better for everything in your life (especially the people who need you). 

While it may seem counterintuitive, it’s true. When you engage in radical self love by setting boundaries, you make time for proper meals, a full night’s rest, and connection with loved ones. You take care of your emotional needs and de-stress everyday. You engage in creative activities and allow your soul to flourish. Choosing to operate this way means you feel happier and more fulfilled, which in turn means you are showing up at 100% for all the important things in your life. 

Practicing radical self love by setting boundaries is a practice and a journey, but there are simple things you can start to do to make it your new norm. 

  • Determine your priorities. Before you can start taking things off your plate, it’s important to know what is important for you to keep in your life. Reflect on the following questions – What helps you show up as your best self everyday? What are your values in life? What are your broader goals in all aspects of your life (career, social, romantic, health)? How can you live in a way that is better aligned with all this? 
  • Pause before commiting. Before deciding to take on something new, take a moment to reflect on the situation and ask yourself, do I have the time / energy to do this? If I say yes to this, will I have to neglect other things in my life? Is that sacrifice worth it to me?
  • Practice. If you’re having a difficult time with enforcing boundaries (which is a completely normal reaction), practice saying no to small things or people who you feel really comfortable with and slowly build up from there. 

For more tips on how to prioritize your happiness and set boundaries, see my Reclaim Your Schedule guide, which has tools and guidance for reclaiming balance in your life.