In the rigmarole of providing caregiving to all and sundry, women forget to care about themselves, and in not saying no to the world, they keep saying no to themselves. Saying no is the first step to self-care and for most women, self-care is akin to a luxury or indulgence. Poet and essayist Audre Lord had written in her 1988 essay, “A Burst of Light”, soon after she was diagnosed with cancer for the second time: “I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune function tests, the devastating effects of overextension. Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference. Necessary for me to cut down on sugar. Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Self-care is merely taking back control of our lives from a culture that subverts women. It is about women’s physical and mental well-being and hence, their basic human rights, and overturning a world that runs on the exploitation of their invisible labour and caregiving. Self-care is an important act of rebellion and it starts with saying no.

Research suggests that women may feel the need to prioritise the needs of others over their own, leading to difficulty in declining requests without feeling guilty or stressed about the consequences. Not being able to say no and not setting boundaries leads to increased stress and anxiety. Individuals who struggle with boundary-setting often report high levels of stress and anxiety. American Psychological Association’s Gender and Stress reports have consistently found that men and women react differently to stress. Their 2012 report found that women reported symptoms of stress as lying awake at night, overeating or eating junk food or completely skipping meals. They also reported other symptoms of stress such as “feeling depressed or sad to experiencing headaches and changes in sleeping habits” or constant fatigue, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, feeling exhausted, feeling like crying, or suffering from upset stomach or indigestion.

All of these findings are so important even if they are not in the Indian context. For years, I have struggled to understand these symptoms in myself. Women I know, friends and acquaintances, struggle with it too. And yet, we push it under the carpet and carry on. We try to manage our stress but more often than not, we fail. I have failed spectacularly to manage my stress. If you eavesdrop on women’s conversations, I can guarantee you that you will hear one phrase across the board – “I am so exhausted.”

According to the APA, while women were more likely to report physical symptoms as effects of stress, they were also better at devising stress management strategies. Better at devising stress management strategies or shoving it all under the carpet?

For the better part of my life, I thought I was successfully controlling my stress but I was merely devising ways to bypass it without addressing it because if I was really devising strategies, it would have started with saying no to unreasonable demands on my time, not just at home or work but to so many other people I know or barely know.

The APA report also found that women were much more likely than men to say that having a good relationship with their families is important to them, but fewer women say they are doing a good job at succeeding in this area; they are also more likely than men to say that having a good relationship with their friends is important to them, even though friendship is cited less often than family for both men and women; and nearly half of all women said they have lain awake at night in the past month because of stress.

Women are apparently also more likely than men to say that they lacked the willpower to make lifestyle and behavioural changes, and that they needed to be less fatigued and have more confidence in themselves to improve their willpower. And finally, interestingly, while most men would say they needed to earn more money, women said they needed to find more time. Yes, more time. Sometimes, I wish days had 48 hours instead of just 24. Or that I could be less tired so I could make use of more of those hours, but since I have hit 40, I can barely stay up beyond 10 pm. I have also had Covid-19 four times, after which I feel like exhaustion is the only constant in my life. And in a cruel twist of fate, I can’t sleep beyond 4 am because anxiety about losing hours of sleep is ever-present in my mind.

If I could say “no” more, I would probably have fewer demands on my time. And believe me, every day, I practice various ways of saying no – not hesitantly but determinedly, confidently and without guilt peppering my words. Just the other day, a woman acquaintance apologised to me for saying a “blunt no”. They went on to explain that they had so much demand on their time that they were struggling to cope. I messaged them back saying “I love a blunt no” and in that moment, we were united because we realised the power of saying no. I respected her more for saying a blunt no, but I also recognised the societal conditioning that makes us apologise for saying a blunt no. And since then I have said a few blunt noes of my own, it feels good. But the fact that I still struggle with saying no means that I am always burnt out – professionally and personally.

And while we might think that burnout is specifically a work-related problem, I believe that it is not. Women suffer personal as well as professional burnout that usually manifests in overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Sound familiar? To me, it does, and I felt it keenly in both my personal and professional life. If a workplace is defined as any place where a person works, then that makes the home a woman’s workplace too. Hence, would it be so illogical to assume that like we face burnout in the workplace, we face similar burnout in our homes too? When the two collide and combine for me, it sometimes manifests in physical illnesses, sometimes in an out-of-body feeling where I feel like I am merely following the motions of my life, and sometimes in just vacant thoughts. And of course, there is anger, resentment and depression.

As Paulo Coelho said, “When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you’re not saying' ‘no’ to yourself.” A 2021 article, “How Women Who Do It All Can Combat Burnout”, examined how women who were used to doing it all could beat burnout by saying no. “If you say ‘yes’ more to others then you’re saying ‘no’ to yourself. Learn to re-evaluate your responsibilities and become OK with letting things go. If you’re maxed out at work, then consciously let something else go,” the article had advised. “At home, re-evaluate your to-do list and consider outsourcing some of the house tasks to your partner or hiring a service. Remember, ‘no’ is a complete sentence in and of itself. You don’t need to qualify your answer or give any rationale.”

Excerpted with permission from How Not to Be a Superwoman: A Handbook For Women to Survive the Patriarchy, Nilanjana Bhowmick, Penguin India.