Wednesday 23 August 2023

Just Don't: Ten Reasons Not to Do the Thing

This photograph by James Orr caught my attention in 2020 when I was looking for the perfect image to accompany one of my blog posts. It wasn’t what I was looking for at the time but I included it in my collection of 21 image prompts for the mental health blogger. Three years on, I’m ready take up the challenge and explore what JUST DON’T means to me.

It stands in contrast to the more famous JUST DO IT imperative, which has featured in the promotional campaigns of American athletic footwear and apparel corporation Nike since 1988. The message of motivation and achievement is healthy enough in the right context, but like positivity of any kind it becomes toxic when applied without considering a person’s situation and needs. There’s an large dose of ableism in the “you can do anything if you want it enough” subtext. What if you want to do it but can’t? What if you don’t want to do it at all?

There are many kinds of achievement, as I explored a couple of years ago in an article titled For the Win! Celebrate Your Successes in Your Own Way. Saying no to the things we don’t want is as important as saying yes to the things we do. Here are ten situations where not doing the thing may be the best or wisest choice.

1. I don’t want to

“I don’t want to” is more of a statement than a reason, but it’s valid if that’s how we feel. Perhaps we know the underlying reason but choose not to share it with others. Or we’re not sure why we don’t want to do the thing, only that we don’t. I was on a call the other day with Fran. She said it was a lovely day where she lives. The sun was shining. There were at least three outdoor things she could imagine doing, any of which she’d probably enjoy. But she didn’t want to do any of them. We explored that for a few moments. I told her her “I don’t want to” was a perfectly reasonable response to a sunny day. She didn’t have to justify her decision to me, herself, or anyone else.

2. I’m scared

You may know the book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, by Susan Jeffers. (“Whatever you are afraid of, this book can give you the insight and practical tools to push through your fears to live the life you always wanted.”) I read it a number of years ago. It contains a great deal of information and techniques for working with our fears. As I’ve written elsewhere, we tend to tell ourselves stories about who we are and what we can and cannot do. These can hold us back from experiencing new things, so it’s worth checking from time to time to see if they still meet our needs.

But the stories, and our fears, are there for a reason. They are, or have been, protective in some way. There’s a time to push through and do it anyway but we may not be in a position to do so right now. That’s okay. Being scared or unready to face the test today is okay. I’m reminded of the poem by Christopher Logue (often wrongly attributed to Guillaume Apollinaire, to whom it was dedicated) called “Come to the Edge.”

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.

The meaning is clear. If we push through our fears (or are pushed) we can overcome what holds us back. The message is intoxicating. It is also profoundly dangerous. It’s not for others to push us over the edge. The motivation to transcend our fears must come from within us, albeit with encouragement and support. Author and life coach Tony Robbins has said “[c]hange happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.” In that moment, we may decide to do the thing, but there’s no shame in paying attention to our fears and putting it off for another day.

3. I don’t feel safe

This overlaps with the previous reason, because if we don’t feel safe doing something we’re likely to be fearful or anxious about it. There’s a difference, however. This one says “I would do the thing if I felt safe.” There could be any number of reasons for feeling unsafe. It might relate to our physical situation, a lack of financial security that makes taking a risk unreasonably perilous, or not having a safe space within a friendship or relationship to do or say what we otherwise would. Not feeling safe is one reason people hide the truth about how they’re feeling.

4. It doesn’t feel right

Elsewhere I’ve described some strategies we can use to make wise decisions. Several rely on identifying how we feel about the options we’re faced with. It’s sensible to balance our feelings with what we think about the situation, but if you’ve a strong sense something isn’t going to work out well, pay attention to your gut. American stand-up comedian Taylor Tomlinson has a brilliant skit about making loads of mistakes in your twenties because you don’t have much of a gut to pay attention to. Not everyone in their twenties is slim, obviously, but she’s talking more about our intuition than our waistlines. I’m in my sixties and have both kinds of gut in abundance. I try to pay attention to them both.

5. I feel pressured to do it

It’s not always obvious when we’re being pushed to do something we otherwise wouldn’t, because the pressure can be subtle. We’ve all been in situations where we feel we should do something, perhaps from a sense of responsibility, duty, or because it’s expected of us. As Philippa Perry claimed in an article in The Guardian, "Shoulds are so often the assimilated wants of other people and of your culture.” Neither Fran nor I are a fan of should. For us, it’s a word that shouldn’t be used. There are times when we can gracefully accept the burden of responsibility, but acting repeatedly against our interests because it’s expected of us isn’t healthy. Saying no when necessary is a wise expression of our boundaries. It reminds us and those around us of our value and needs.

6. I can’t afford it

Not having enough money is a valid reason for saying no to things we’d like to do if we could afford it. Examples include declining a meet-up with a friend, deferring a vacation, or putting off non-essential purchases. It can be hard to say no, but it’s a wise decision if our finances don’t permit it, or if saying yes would leave us struggling to afford something more important.

7. I can’t right now

Sometimes we’d love to do the thing but can’t at the moment. We may have contradictory demands and responsibilities, or health issues that get in the way. The latter is something I’ve learned from Fran, whose primary health conditions — bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME), and fibromyalgia — affect her episodically. There are times when all three conditions are operating at a low intensity and she’s more or less able to do what she wants or needs to do. More usually, however, one or more of her symptoms is in the ascendency. This can severely limit her ability to do the things she’d like to. She generally needs to allow time in advance of, and after, anything that requires significant mental, physical, or emotional energy.

8. I can’t do it

There are some things we’re incapable of doing, no matter how much we’d like to. That’s not a comfortable message. We’re indoctrinated to believe we can do anything if we want it enough and are prepared to do the necessary work, navigating or pushing aside the obstacles in our way. Obstacles such as stigma, discrimination, and oppression deserve to be challenged and overcome, but the idea we can do anything we want is naive, unkind, and unhelpful. Refusing to acknowledge our lives’ boundaries can breed dissatisfaction and resentment. It also prevents us from living our best lives. Saying I can't do that isn’t defeatist or self-limiting if it’s grounded in reality. We’re not letting ourselves down, or failing at life. Accepting that some things aren’t going to happen can bring peace because we’re no longer spending time and energy chasing things that will never be. It allows us to focus on and work towards the things we can achieve. Our first best destiny, if you will.

9. I don’t want to give up

The hardest choice of all is saying no to something that seems the best or only option, but is potentially dangerous. I’ve no personal experience of suicidal thinking or self-harm, but I’ve learned how desperately hard it can be to stay safe. Just don't might seem insensitive and naive in that context, but anything that helps weigh the scale towards safety counts as a reason not to do the unsafe thing. I’m reminded of the lyrics to Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” with its list of reasons to stay in the game, to stay safe, to stay alive.

’Cause you have friends.
You’re not beaten yet.
I know you can make it good.
You still have us.
’Cause somewhere there’s a place where we belong.
You’re not the only one.
We’re proud of who you are.

My favourite version of the song is Gabriel’s duet with Kate Bush, but his 1990 performance with Sinead O’Connor carries fresh poignancy after her recent death. Every person and situation is different, but staying safe is likely to involve more than not doing the unsafe thing. It very likely involves choosing to do something protective, such as seeking help and support. This in itself is an act of courage and deserves to be recognised as such.

10. I did it and I want a medal

A funny one to finish with. If you’re planning to do something just to look good or brag about it afterwards, maybe JUST DON’T. It’s not a good look, as Ellie Taylor relates in this excerpt from the BBC’s satirical news show The Mash Report. It opens with the line, “A man has sorted out one thing and now wants a fucking medal for it.” Joking aside, it’s worth examining our motives if we find ourselves doing things performatively just to boost our egos or elevate ourselves above others.

Over to You

In this post I’ve shared ten reasons not to do something. Can you think of an occasion when you had to decline an invitation, or say no to something you wanted to do? What about times when you felt obligated to do something you didn’t want to do? How did it feel? How did you handle it? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by James Orr at Unsplash.


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