At some point late last year, in the midst of the pandemic, I came to the realization that I had allowed another virus to prey on my happiness and well-being. I realized that I had allowed my nos to become yesses, and my yesses to become “because I have no choice”. I was willingly sacrificing time and energy in response to the global pandemic, but also unwittingly jeopardizing my well-being by allowing for the concession virus to infiltrate my existence. I pride myself in NOT being a ‘yes woman’. In fact, I loathe people who bend over and take it, especially those who do it in efforts to self-preserve and promote. But somehow in an effort to put service above self, I fell into the trap of allowing others to feast on my good nature. Although in my case, there was no self-promotion or preservation. In fact, the result was the complete opposite. I started to feel deprecated and demeaned by others who were taking advantage of me to nurture their own self interests. Instead of preserving, I was allowing my time and happiness to waste away. Where did this toxic selflessness come from? Was it from years of military service, in which I was indoctrinated in the art of the of the “Yes, Sir/Ma’am”? Was it Catholic guilt? Was it the inherent servitude mentality that women of color like myself bear in a country that relegates us to inferior roles? Was it “el qué dirán” (What will people say?) that we’re so unfortunately preoccupied with as Puerto Rican women? All of the above.

And so I decided to tell the shrink about this acquired accommodating behavior. And she told me to get a life. At first it sounded rough and I almost fired her as my provider. Get a life?!?! (Said no mental health provider to a crazy patient ever.) Clearly this one graduated from the psych School of Hard Knocks. I was so angry. I left her office thinking that she had gone into psychology to understand her own pathology. SMH. But as I drove home, I had an epiphany and realized what she meant to say…(I truly hope.) Live your own life, forget what others think or say, if you don’t want to do something just say ‘no’, if it doesn’t bring you happiness or satisfaction just say ‘no’. No means no. And I need to learn how to not be unclear-double negative intended.

Then a friend of mine, who ironically is also a psychologist, told me to get Mark Manson’s book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F@ck”. She told me all my answers to living a good life were inside the pages of this book. And honestly, she was correct. Among many amazing quotes in the book, one of my favorite states that “most of us struggle throughout our lives by giving too many f@cks in situations where f@cks do not deserve to be given.” And so began the transformation of turning my failure of YES, into the power of NO.

Luckily for all of us, the word “no” sounds pretty similar in many languages and the universal hand signals for “no” (including the middle-finger) are also well understood. Little need for interpretation. I have started to self-preserve, and not by acquiescing. Negativity can lead to positivity. And a simple NO should suffice.

Dr. Jennifer M. Peña was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from Yale University in 2004, and was commissioned in the United States Army in 2008 after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She is Board Certified in Internal Medicine. Dr. Peña’s Army experience includes multiple tours of duty, to include a deployment to Afghanistan in 2012 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom rendering medical care to detainees in the Detention Facility in Parwan, and from 2014-2018 at the White House Medical Unit. She is the first Latina to serve as a White House Physician, and the first Latina and female to occupy the position of Physician to the Vice President. Dr. Peña ended her service to the Army on January 2019. She currently works as Medical Director for Global Executive Medicine, and lives in Falls Church, VA with her husband and 5 dogs.

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