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MS and Learning to Say No

By Matt Cavallo

Many of us living with multiple sclerosis try to keep up appearances. We don’t want people to treat us differently because of our condition. Whether it is at home, the office, or with friends, we feel compelled to say “yes” to every request, even if we are going to pay the price for it later. 

Saying “yes” to everything adds extra stress to managing your MS. For example, let’s say that you are feeling some excess fatigue and a friend calls up and says that they are going to drop by. Somehow you decide to muster the energy to get your home ready for company. Then, while your company is there, you put on your best face and try to stay alert and focused in their presence. Once they leave, however, you are completely exhausted because of the extra stress, plus the physical and mental energy you spent to accommodate their request, when you were already fatigued before they dropped by. Had you been able to harness the power of “No,” this situation could have been avoided.

Why then do most of us say “yes,” when we really mean no? Most of it has to do with our own self-confidence and fear of rejection. We don’t want to be told no, so we don’t like to tell it to someone else. We view no as a rejection, when really saying no can be used to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. Here are some tips on how to say no without hurting the other person’s feelings. 

1. Keep it simple. If you are declining an offer or invitation, keep it short, simple and to the point. You don’t have to explain why you are unable to attend, especially if it draws attention to your MS. Overexplaining makes you sound guilty. Simple explanations are always the best. For example, “Thank you for the invitation, but unfortunately it doesn’t work for my schedule.”

2. Take your time to respond. Do not be so quick to answer an invitation or request. We have a tendency to blurt the first thing that comes to our mind. Telling a person that you have to check your calendar and get back to them allows you the time to evaluate whether or not to accept the invitation. For example, “I would love to go, but I need to check my calendar. Let me circle back with you once I know I am free.”

3. Compromise is key. Maybe it is not “no,” but not “now.” Just because something works timewise for someone else, doesn’t mean that you can automatically accommodate it. We tend to put more value into other people’s time than our own. Giving them an alternative that allows you to manage your MS without shutting the door on the invitation lets the other person know that you want to participate, but they will need to help find a compromise that works for both of you. For example, “I would love to, but the timing isn’t right for me. Do you have any time next week so we can make it work?”

4. Don’t lie. Sometimes when we say no, we create some elaborate reason for why we can’t accept. The problem with that elaborate response is that the other person will follow up on you to see how it went. If you tell someone you can’t because you have a doctor’s appointment, but really didn’t have a doctor’s appointment, there is a chance that you might not recall your mistruth and it could come back to haunt you. If a person catches you in a lie, then that person will feel the rejection you trying to avoid. 

5. Boundaries are healthy. Once you set boundaries, it is important to stick to them. People will respect you and your time if you clearly define your boundaries. Remember, you are refusing the request and not rejecting the person. Clearly define why the request doesn’t work for you. This will also allow you to explain symptoms related to your MS. This is not a rejection of the request, rather a factor of your condition. For example, “I would love to help you move, but I am having trouble with my balance due to my MS. It wouldn’t be safe for me to help.”