Why Do We Find Ourselves Feeling Guilty For Saying “No,”?

I find myself writing this post having been sent home from work for being unwell.  I probably shouldn’t have gone into work in the first place, but there was this little guilty voice in my head preventing me from calling in sick.


And that voice is a real pain.

I imagine I am not the only one who has a voice like this, or experiences that guilty feeling when you have to cancel going out, an event or call in sick to work.  But I am getting really fed up of it.

This morning for example.  I woke up in the early hours in pain.  I’d spent yesterday in pain in the midst of my period and bleeding very heavily, and this morning seemed no different.  However, the pain had changed and the only way I can describe it is as if something – most likely a cyst – had burst.  I struggled to stand up straight because the pain was rippling through my pelvis, I struggled to walk because every step felt like a punch to my ovary, and I struggled to sit down because it felt like I had a red hot poker shoved up my bum and vagina.  In tears, I popped my pills and held my phone in my hand as I tried to figure out what I was going to say to work.  But that little voice I mentioned earlier was ringing in my ears – we were one staff member down, had a full clinic list and a busy ward, and I had only recently been back at work since my wedding.

So off I went into work, only to be sent home at lunchtime because it was clear I was in agony.

Why had I let this voice prevent me making a better decision?  And why are we made to feel guilty when our chronic illness prevents us from doing something?  If I hadn’t of let me emotions get the better of me, I’d have stayed off work today.

These are my theories as to why those of us with chronic illnesses experience guilt when not being able to go into work or go out with friends;

  1. The perception of (or the reality of) other peoples understanding being poor.  A lot of chronic health conditions are not well talked about, their awareness is minimal and often include symptoms that are classed as “embarrassing” or a “taboo” subject
  2. Fear of being labelled as the “unreliable friend” which can lead to feelings of isolation and cause breakdowns in relationships
  3. The concern that your colleagues will have to take on the extra workload in your absence, or that any work you have to do will not be completed
  4. Experiencing financial worries related to missing work or employment opportunities.  This alone can drive a person to do more than what they should, leading to worse pain and symptoms
  5. Worry over becoming a burden to the person or people who take care of you.  Even though they could be your family, beloved or best friend and have stood by you for years, the simple fact that they are doing things for you can make you feel a nuisance

As this guilty feeling has been really getting on my nerves, I’ve been working on ways to try and stop it from developing in the first place.  For example, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to educate my family, friends and colleagues about my health conditions.  Why?  Well my hope is that increased knowledge leads to increased understanding, so perhaps when I have to cancel or simply say “no,”, everyone will really understand.  The only downside is that whilst this has been really effective (particularly at work), I’ve found it can be mentally exhausting.

I’ve also found that being able to accept help that people are offering seems to eliminate any feelings of “being a burden”.  When my husband is doing the cooking, cleaning and washing, I no longer worry that he feels he has to do it all – he is doing it because he cares about me.  And I know when I’m feeling better, I’ll be able to help him or do it for him.

Finally, I have also worked on the ability to not give a damn about what other people think of me when I am poorly, having to cancel or limit my activities.  Although this has taken me some time to get to grips with, to have this ability has been working pretty well – if anyone decides to no longer hand out with me or even talk to because I have cancelled on them a few times in the past, then that’s their problem.  Or if people judge me or question me as to why I am not doing something at work or at home, then I just let it pass over my head – I’ve learnt life is too short to care about what those kind of people think.

The thing to remember is that you didn’t ask to become poorly or to have the conditions you’ve been diagnosed with, and there is often not a lot of control over what your body decides to do.  So when you’re feeling guilty because you’ve phoned in sick to work or cancelled going out last minute, take a deep breath and remember that you have as much right to not do something as you have to do it.  No one should ever make you feel guilty, so stop feeling guilty yourself.


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