A reader realizes that she takes on way too much and has a hard time saying no. Life coach Tal Fagin suggests a few strategies for drawing boundaries and accepting limits.
The good news is, I have a rich, interesting and full life. The bad news is, I feel generally exhausted and spread way too thin. Even so, I find myself saying yes to more and more projects and invitations—both professional and personal—when all I really want to do is cut back.
It is, of course, nice to feel wanted. I am thrilled that so many people seem to think of me as reliable and competent, and I do genuinely love to be helpful. At the same time, I have a growing unease and nagging feeling that I consistently take on way too much, and that something has got to give.
Why do I keep saying yes, even when I want to say no? What is so difficult about uttering that simple two-letter word, and can you help me get better at it?
Dear Overly Agreeable,
Congratulations on your full and fabulous life, and an extra pat on the back to you for recognizing your good fortune.
It sounds as if, intellectually you know you have a lot to be grateful for, but your daily existence is weighed down by stress and overwhelm, and maybe even a sense of being beleaguered. This disconnect—between your circumstances and how you actually experience them—is usually a recipe for guilt and shame, an added burden that never helps in addressing any problem.
So let’s see what we can do about it.
Why is it so hard to say no, even when you want to, or suspect you truly must?
Some people extend themselves out of love, affection or a genuine desire to help whenever possible. In my experience, these doers and achievers have a somewhat easier time establishing boundaries. They recognize that their ability to keep doing and helping is necessarily limited by a competing need to care for themselves and occasionally refuel. They feel less guilt around prioritizing their own needs and are better able to establish clearer boundaries. If this sounds like you, congratulations, your task will be much simpler.
Other people, let’s call them “People Pleasers,” have a much harder time. I see many of them in my practice, and they have a pernicious tendency to put everyone else’s needs ahead of their own. They generally over-give at the expense of their own time, energy, and well-being, and often act from guilt and obligation rather than genuine interest. Many of them complain about being taken advantage of by others or spend a lot of time feeling resentful of, and mystified by, the “selfish” behavior of others. People Pleasers have long-held attitudes about “being good” and “doing the right thing,” and tend to find themselves feeling imprisoned by those personal dictates. At the same time, they are both horrified by—and utterly envious of—all the other people in their lives who “just do whatever they want … and get away with it!”
In your case, Overly Agreeable, I am not sure if your excessive agreeing is motivated by a genuine desire to help, or is driven more by fear, guilt, insecurity or a need to please, but I would encourage you to ask yourself just that. Which one feels more honest or accurate to you?
You say you “genuinely love to be helpful,” but you also acknowledge the thrill you feel because “so many people” seem to think so highly of you. To some extent, we all crave acceptance and regard. We all want to be liked and included. That deep-seated desire is entirely human, but when it causes us to over-do and over-commit—perhaps because we fear dismissal, rejection or abandonment—it can wreak havoc on an otherwise lucky life.
When it comes to drawing boundaries and developing your ability to just say no, here are a few strategies you might try:
Accept Limits. As a human being, your personal resources are finite. This means, that when it comes to making choices about how to spend your time and energy, you have every right to draw boundaries and stick to them—no guilt required. Accept that you have limits and honor them. Just as you might set an annual budget based on your assets and income, why not apply the same approach to your time? If you wouldn’t feel compelled to fund a venture you couldn’t afford or make extravagant purchases that might bankrupt you, why not be just as careful with your personal resources?
Discern Thy Patterns. I have said it before, and will say it again and again… You cannot solve a problem you don’t fully understand. Spend some time mentally revisiting those moments where you’ve wanted to say no, but found yourself saying yes instead. What thoughts ran through your mind? What are the stories—conscious or subconscious—you tell yourself that make it hard for you to say no? For example, do you believe putting yourself first means that you are “selfish?” Are you afraid to miss out on a potential opportunity, or worried about offending people when you decline an invitation? Do you equate saying no with confrontation? Is the thought of disappointing others just too scary, or otherwise, “just not worth it?”
Heed Red Flags. If you are anything like me, or the vast majority of us, the above review likely yielded a few shoulds, have tos or can’ts. These are some of my favorite phrases, blazing red flags indicating that you have a little work to do. Bottom line: Whenever you catch yourself thinking “I should,” “I have to,” or “I can’t,” think again. Why “should” you? Do you really “have to?” Is it true that you “can’t?”
Your Life, Your Choices. It is liberating to see our decisions as volitional rather than imposed upon us. No matter what the situation, if you make the effort to pause and remind yourself, “I can say no here,” you will feel stronger. Should you decide that the “no” will carry consequences you are not equipped or willing to handle, then you may choose to say yes as a matter of choice. The end result, on the surface, might be the same, but the process will change your experience from one of being a passive victim to one of being an active participant.
Listen to Your Body. When faced with a moment of decision, we tend to run through a mental list of pros and cons. Instead, try giving that analytical mind a break and tapping into your body. That “growing unease and nagging feeling” you mention is your body’s way of telling you to pay attention, to take heed. Recall the last time you said yes, even when you wanted to say no. How did it feel, physically? Where did you feel it? A reluctant or ambivalent yes usually feels heavy, burdensome, defeating or entangling. A clear yes, on the other hand, feels light and breezy, open and free. Whenever possible, move toward the light.
Be Honest. You know that moment when a request comes in, and your mind immediately starts racing for excuses? My daughter is sick. My car is in the shop. I wish I could, but I’ll be in Tahiti that day! In my experience, it’s never worth it. Lies beget more lies, or worse, things can get awkward or embarrassing when you are exposed. Even prior to that, the lie can be weighty, guilt-inducing and otherwise problematic. Instead, respect yourself and the other person enough to be honest. If you must, let them down gently, without sharing the entire truth but without blatantly lying either.
Ditch the Explanations and Apologies. Give others the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they will do the same for you. If you are unavailable for any reason, say so—clearly and without excessive explanation or apology. Be polite, but honest and direct. While you are practicing the subtle art of saying no, employ a stock phrase, one that does not include the word sorry. For example, “I wish I could meet, but my schedule is tight this month. Would a phone call work instead? People who are kind-but-firm in their denials do not anger or upset me, but rather, impress and inspire. Their confidence shines through. They don’t come off as rude, selfish or offensive, but simply as grown-ups who have every right to accept or decline any given request.
Reverse the Cost-Benefit Analysis: All too often, we say yes instead of no out of fear of what we will miss—whether it’s a chance to impress the boss, land the new account or experience the party of the century. We don’t want to disappoint people, give them a reason to dislike us or impose any undue burdens on them, nor do we want to risk losing out on opportunities. What gets lost in that calculus, however, are the equal and opposite costs and benefits of the reverse decision. When you say yes to anything, you are always saying no to something else. Oftentimes, it’s something you might rather be doing. The idea here is not to induce decision paralysis but to give you permission to choose your own path, the one that better meets your own needs. If saying no is just too difficult, don’t think of it that way. Simply think of it as saying yes—to something else.
It is, after all, your one and only life. Shouldn’t the choice be yours?