Luz Mayancela/MiC.

Being able to say I was busy used to be my pride and joy. If you were to ask me how I was freshman year, I would most likely respond with a “good — just busy with school.” I abided by the unspoken laws of being a “productive college student” and said yes to every opportunity I came across. It took a semester of burnout and fatigue to realize that my idealization of busyness prevented me from practicing healthy boundaries. 

Why is it hard for us to say no? I hate saying no. Could it be because the thought of people feeling disregarded scares me? Or because I love the rush of being everything and everywhere all at once? Perhaps. Yet I can’t help but think about how connected this habit is to my childhood. 

I am used to no’s. My parents were strict: straight home after school, no sleepovers in other houses and no boyfriends. My immigrant parents made sure I didn’t develop only child syndrome and mostly told me no when I wanted to do things other kids my age were doing. I was their only child, and for that matter, a girl. In their eyes, I had to be protected from a society with malicious men. I grew up guarded by the sayings “no one we know is going” or “no is no.” My younger self felt sabotaged by the experiences my friends had because I craved a normal teenage lifestyle. Of course, I can’t ignore the fact that the things I asked for were almost always out of reach or impossible, like the time I asked my parents if I could go to a Justin Bieber concert but I didn’t know anyone that was going and the ticket prices were three-digit numbers. The Belieber in me was so furious by their denial that I recall wanting to run away the night of the concert. I remember asking my parents if I could get a job in downtown Chicago because the downtown rush excited me. The answer was no. I was a very curious child — I wanted to know what life had to offer outside of my small family. So, as I received no’s, my curiosity grew. Although I understand the reasoning behind their no’s, I wish they knew how hard it was to be denied as a child of immigrants who was already being denied by the standards of a “normal American teenager”  — I was told, “we have food at home,” when I asked to make a stop at McDonald’s. Yet, it hurt to remember how normal it was for my friends to do simple things like getting McDonald’s. 

During my high school years, I learned that my childhood desires were a luxury my family could simply not afford. As I gained independence and my curiosity to explore increased, I chose to say yes. An opportunity to serve on a student advisory council for the school district? Yes. Want to serve on my high school’s student council? Yes. I wanted to do everything and sought to reverse all of the no’s I had been told. I loved adventuring with my friends, staying after school for meetings and looking for extracurricular activities. I loved being busy. 

College came around, and that urge to always be occupied only strengthened. I signed up for all of the student organizations I found interesting and filled my Google Calendar with weekly events. It was a humble brag to say I was good but busy when people asked me how I was. Everyone in this university seemed to always be busy, and I didn’t feel productive if I took a nap once I got back from my classes. Commitment became easy and many times I sacrificed personal time for commitments I didn’t need to have. Why wouldn’t I want to finish a task for my job knowing it was already past 5 p.m? Why wouldn’t I want to set up meetings back to back knowing I had no time to eat in between? Maybe because I loved being in demand. The day in the life of a college student videos I watched didn’t warn me about over commitment. In school, there is little to no discussion about how easy it is for college students to overwhelm themselves with unnecessary commitments. Overproductivity violates all laws of having a balanced and healthy lifestyle. And it is only harder for students of Color who are expected to be “competent college students” despite day-to-day encounters with social injustice.

The emotional and academic consequences of always saying yes came to a head last semester. I was enrolled in 14 credit hours, worked part-time and added two more organizations to my calendar. I developed unhealthy eating habits, felt emotionally exhausted and the thought of studying for hours drained me. I dreaded school days and couldn’t wait for the semester to be over. I was in survival mode. 

Near the end of the semester, I met with my research mentor to discuss our weekly tasks. As we were discussing how much capacity I had to finish the weekly tasks, I assured her that I would get everything done, despite it being a little more work than usual. In bewilderment, she said, “Can you really, Luz?” She caught me off guard. Could I really? That was a good question. I could, but that would require me to spend less time studying and taking care of myself. I was tired and she noticed. So I swallowed my pride and told her no. Our talk forced me to think about my conceptualization of commitment and availability. She advised me to show grace to myself and the commitments I made because time is the most precious thing we can spend. The promises and commitments I was making were not purposeful if I kept saying yes without considering my true availability. I was not creating boundaries that protect my health and wellness. 

As I reflect on last semester and look forward to new beginnings, I am ready to say no more often. It is important for me to recognize that my personal time is just as valuable as attending class. Scheduling work meetings may be an investment for my career, but scheduling “me time” is an investment for my energy and peace. I can’t forget that I am the first one in my family to attend a university with responsibilities that extend beyond the classroom. What I practice today will influence future generations, and I can only hope that I can pass down the willingness to choose yourself, to say no when society wants you to say yes.

MiC Columnist Luz Mayancela (she/her/hers) can be reached at luzm@umich.edu.