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Mirna Valerio’s Advice to Her Younger Self: Practice Saying “No”

Ultrarunner and author Mirna Valerio recalls patterns of overstriving in her young self that she still carries today.

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I get asked this question a lot: “What advice would I give my younger self, or any other version of myself at a different time in my life?” It is always difficult to answer this question, because up to now, my life has been pretty freaking fantastic. Of course, there have been challenging times, but those are unavoidable, and we do the best that we can do in the moment. Those experiences are always informed by what is happening in your life socially, family-wise, in the world, and in your general sphere of existence.

But I will go ahead and answer this question, because I think it begs some reflection on my part. We say “Just say no!” to drugs and to sexual pressure in our quest to be strong consent-givers and deniers. But where else in our lives should we, could we, say no? How can we incorporate this practice into our lives without guilt and without the need to justify our answer? We absolutely need to say no, to many, many things in order to maintain homeostasis and balance in our lives. As I write this, my right eyelid is twitching. This happens when I’m overwhelmed, fatigued, dehydrated, and/or ALL OF THE ABOVE.

I am only learning this now, as an adult. Here is my story.

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I absolutely adored almost every single moment of high school in the 1990s. I went to the Masters School, a small all-girls boarding and day school in Dobbs Ferry, New York (which is now a much larger co-ed school). It was just under an hour away from my home in Brooklyn, and I could not have been happier to have the opportunity to live away from home (which I loved) and thrive in a place where I could explore everything. “Everything” turned out to be classical music (I became one of the big singers on campus, landing roles in the musical, taking piano lessons, joining all the singing clubs, heading to Juilliard Pre-College on the weekend to study voice, dabbling in composition, playing trombone and percussion in the orchestra), high-level academics, community service, co-chairing my junior class, and, and…sports.

I played field hockey and lacrosse. These two incredible sports are the reason I am a runner now. They are why I get to do what I do as an athlete with a public presence. I started running so I could improve at those two sports specifically—running up and down grassy fields with a stick, ball, mouth guards, and shin guards did a number on me, so I had to work on my ability to run and do all those things. In the end, I fell hard for running and all it gave me: time to myself, a strong body and mind, an increased ability to last throughout a two and a half hour practice, a sense of athletic belonging, and mental fortitude.

There was so much. I did everything I could get my hands on. I also did everything that others asked me to do, whether it was a faculty member asking me to show up at a club meeting in their absence, or the president of a club asking me to learn a new song (the beginning of my flirtation and long love affair with the Indigo Girls!) for our last performance of our senior year, which was the next day.

I always said yes. I said yes to extra rehearsals in New York City, even if I wasn’t required to be there. I said yes to rewriting papers when I didn’t really need to, just to get a slightly better grade that in the end meant virtually nothing. I said yes to being the president of this club and the vice president of that club because no one else would step into these roles. I said yes to things that weren’t in my wheelhouse, because as a school leader you were expected to jump in where necessary. This would help develop leadership skills, they would say.

I rarely said no, even when there was a schedule conflict. I’d make it happen. I was so invested in being a leader, in being excellent, in showing up for those who couldn’t, and in making sure that I did not waste the exquisite opportunities given to me, that I often forgot to take care of myself.

Sleep? Who could sleep when they had to walk to the train station at zero dark thirty in the morning to catch the Metronorth to Grand Central, grab a muffin and coffee at Zaro’s, and hop on a bevy of subway trains to get to Juilliard where we would study solfege, ear training, chorus, and chamber chorus and have voice lessons and stern conversations about the music business?

Who could rest when there were plays to put on, tech rehearsals, chorus sectionals to run, piano lessons and auditions to prepare, speeches to write, AP exams and SATs to study for, school traditions to learn and pass on to frosh?

Who could sleep when there were field hockey and lacrosse games to travel to, practice to endure, running to do in the early mornings before everyone woke up?

Much of this is my fault. I wanted to do everything because I had to, at lest I felt that way. It was this deeply felt need to be good, to be excellent, to show the world, my family, and everyone else who had invested in me, that they hadn’t wasted their resources on me.

Waste not, want not. This old adage has always floated around in my brain.

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I tried to follow the trajectory of my ancestors, my parents, my community, to make the world better and easier to navigate for the next generation. I was a pay-backer. I wanted to make sure no one thought I was wasting what they had given me, and I didn’t want to squander my gifts and talents.

I was up in the middle of the night or early in the mornings at 4 a.m. to finish papers, to study, to learn that last bit of a song in German, to mark a score. Then I would wait for sunrise to go for a run.

I ran myself ragged—that’s exactly what I did. Was it youth? Was it fulfilling my own expectations I had of myself?

I wish someone had stopped me and allowed me to rest. But I think this was difficult for adults to see: a high-achieving student who really never showed any signs of distress or anxiety, and who seemed to be able to do anything and everything, because she did.

The dangerous part of this, if the lack of sleep and downtime weren’t enough, was that I acted unflappable. I cultivated an exterior of unflappability. It was so bad that my favorite teacher, who became both friend, colleague, and second mother to me, forced me out of my last music class, the last day of classes in my senior year, and to the infirmary where I would live for the next three days with the flu. It was so bad that during my stay in the low, squat building (that is now a beautiful and expansive middle school), I begged for permission to take the train to the city and do an interview at the Metropolitian Museum of Art for a summer internship. Remember: WASTE NOT, WANT NOT. I couldn’t waste this opportunity, even if I didn’t get the job. (I got it.)

I don’t remember a moment of the train ride, or of the interview itself. Afterward, I didn’t have money to take a cab from the Metronorth Station to school, so I walked a mile straight uphill, in a feverish state, swaying to and fro, sweating through my interview blouse and skirt, feet slimy in my pumps. I went straight back to that low, squat building that housed the ginger ale, Seldane (now banned), and the extremely capable and tough love of our school nurse and the gentleness of our night nurse. As soon as I felt even a little better I was back to cramming for exams, preparing for graduation, running rehearsals, doing rehearsals for my senior recital at Juilliard, and scrambling to find an accompanist at the last minute.

It was constant. There was no break, except for sickness. And even then, it wasn’t. Actually, let me rephrase this. The breaks came when I was completely burnt out. I didn’t know how to communicate that I couldn’t do something, or that it would take critical time away from other much more critical things.

And in addition to all the people who have believed in me, supported me, poured resources into my youth, adolescence, and young adulthood, I am eternally obligated. There is a sense of urgency to fulfill my my own expectations of gratitude and to pay it forward.

Then I would just check out. I wouldn’t tell anyone that it was too much. I would shut myself up in my room, or better yet, a practice room. I’d play piano until my fingers hurt, sing until my voice sounded as if I were a smoker. I would avoid people, so they wouldn’t ask me to do anything else. I was a champion at that too.

This is still my problem. I engage in the exact behavior today.

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After I left my teaching career in 2018, I was unsure of how any of this would turn out. I knew I would have to hustle to keep earning enough to live on and to ensure that my son and I had a place to live and thrive.

These days I have sponsors and partnerships, transactional social media relationships, coaches for whom I have the ultimate respect, and of course expectations, duties, and my own personal standards of excellence. I said yes to all of these things, and now my responsibility is to bring it.

I say yes, a lot. I still do. But I am learning to say no, for my sanity, my mental health, and physical health. It is really difficult to do. There is guilt, there is a fleeting feeling of ungratefulness. There is the question of what if I never have this opportunity again? Will I have wasted my talents and the energy and resources invested in me?

Intellectually I know that I have not. But in every other way, doing all the things seems exigent. I am learning though. Not all things and people are necessary. I can do my best, and produce excellent work without erasing my sense of self. I can. I know I can.

So, I will now practice doing and saying the following:

No, to work that doesn’t align with my core values.
No, to responding to others’ contrived senses of urgency.
No, to an unpaid “opportunity” that promises exposure.
No, to time sucks with no return on investment, whether financial or not.
No, to absorbing the bullshit on social media.

Yes to more running, for running’s sake.
Yes to just sitting and resting.
Yes to more dinners at home with my son who will attend college soon.
Yes to being open about my struggles with anxiety.
Yes to pouring goodness into society.
Yes to paying it forward, but not to the detriment of self-preservation.

And yes, to acknowledging this is how I’d like my life to continue: knowing that for the most part I pour my best self into everything that I do. And when I need a break, I will try my damnedest to take one, and urge other high-achievers to do the same.

I just had a conversation with another high-achieving friend who frequently finds herself in similar position. She said, “Mirna, the first step is recognition.” I guess the next step is acknowledgement. I acknowledge all of this in my present self, and look back to my former high-school self and advise her, plea with her, to say no more often, and to GO LAY DOWN.*

*Go lay down is a directive used in AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and it has several meanings: go rest, go lie down, go take a break, go to your room and come back when you are ready to face the world, rested and ready.

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