This week, I had to write a very difficult email in which I said “no” to a major commitment. It was something I had worked on in the past, and about six months ago, I said I would continue to work on it in the future. But in the interim between saying “yes” and now, a lot has changed for me. And now, that commitment no longer feels like the right choice. It no longer fits in my schedule or in my life. So when the person emailed me last weekend asking if I was still on board, I went into a total panic meltdown.
Have you ever experienced something like this? It’s like a feeling that you need to say “yes” even when you don’t really want to for fear of disappointing someone, burning a bridge, or losing esteem in someone else’s eyes.
In the past, I have said “yes” to a lot of things because I wanted people to like me and see me as a helper. The result was often an overbooked schedule, with no time left for me or my loved ones. I was exhausted and totally unpleasant to be around.
However, once I defined my values and started cultivating commitments around them, I found that I was a much happier, more energetic person. While I still wrestle with a pang of guilt when I say “no” to things, imagining everyone I’m saying “no” to shaking their heads and thinking I’m some kind of commitment phobe, I understand now that I cannot be everything to everyone. I don’t want to please everyone to the point where I have nothing left for me.
Why do we feel so terrible when we say no? To what are we attaching our worth?
Sometimes I feel like we put ourselves in competition with each other to gauge who is the busiest, the most productive. There’s a certain prestige in our culture to having a million commitments and doing it all and still being able to stand on two feet. I feel a social pressure to say I am busy even though a major priority for me has become creating more margin in my schedule.
That margin has become a nonnegotiable. I still feel the guilt and the fear of judgment, but I am overall a more peaceful person with more to give to my loved ones when I say “no” to commitments that don’t align with my deepest self.
You’ve probably heard this art of saying “no” referred to as “setting boundaries.” To me, the word “boundary” always connoted closed-in-ness, a sort of negation or a reduction of possibility. But listening to an episode of Design Yourself this week, I realized Sharon is so right: by saying “no” to certain things, we are actually opening ourselves up to greater possibilities.
It is freeing and expansive to say “no.” We are able to progress and become more fully ourselves, to live our values more truly, to work on the things that are most meaningful to us, when we say “no.”
I will share with you a list of creative ways to say “no” that, serendipitously (like so many events in my life lately), I read the night after I wrote the difficult email. It comes from Jessica Turner’s book, The Fringe Hours. Then I will share a few ways I have set expansive boundaries in my own life, and perhaps you can draw inspiration from my list to begin setting your own.
Jessica combines her own list with a list from Renee Peterson Trudeau’s book, The Mother’s Guide to Self-Renewal:
1. Just No: “Thanks, but I won’t be able to do that.”
This is one I struggle with. Maybe for something that easily warrants a boundary, like someone asking me to go out for drinks after a 10-hour workday. I would feel totally comfortable saying “no.”
2. The Gracious No: “I’m so thankful you asked me, but I won’t be able to commit.”
I think it is important to offer thanks, especially if someone is clearly putting faith in your abilities to do something challenging. You can be “honored” or “appreciative” or “flattered” here, and let them know you understand the value and importance of what they’re asking.
3. The “I’m Sorry” No: “I would love to, but my schedule won’t allow for it. I’m sorry.”
I like to apologize (I’m working on it!) I would say something like, “I’m sorry I won’t be able to help, but I hope you understand.”
4. The “It’s Someone Else’s Decision” No: “I have committed to my therapist that I will not take on any more projects right now. I’m working to create more margin in my life.”
Haha, I am not sure I would feel comfortable saying this to an acquaintance or a superior or most colleagues. Definitely to friends. But if my decision really did depend on someone else, I might mention that. The strongest appeal might come from children–“I told my daughter we would spend Wednesday nights at story time at the library, so I can’t.”
5. The “My Family Is the Reason” No: “We appreciate the invitation, but my daughter has a dance recital that day, so we won’t be able to attend.”
I already leaned on family, but family is important and people can’t argue with you. They will probably ultimately admire you for being forthcoming about putting family first.
6. The “I Know Someone Else” No: “I am not able to help with that project, but I know the perfect person who might be able to help.”
I love this one, and have used it. A caveat: don’t throw someone’s name out there unless you consult with her first! She, too, may be working on setting boundaries in her life. However, if she’s on board, it’s a great help to the person soliciting a commitment.
7. The “I’m Already Booked” No: “Thank you for asking, but I have an appointment that day.”
I use this one all the time. It’s less about setting boundaries, and more about keeping my schedule manageable. I often use this even if there is no overlap but adding the extra thing would make the day or week just too busy.
8. The “Setting Boundaries” No: “That is more than I can do right now, but here is what I could commit to…”
I like this one, too. Sometimes I say “no” to the major commitment, but I offer my help with smaller tasks. You’re still on board because you know it’s important, but with less responsibility.
9. The “Not No, but Not Yes” No: “Let me think about it. Could I get back to you next week?”
I am rarely a fan of this because ultimately I still end up saying “no,” and I’ve kept the person on the hook for longer when she could have been looking for someone else. If it’s something I’m honestly not sure about, but I might be leaning toward “yes” and I just need to get my ducks in a row, I might use this.
When I wrote the email earlier this week, I used a combination of thanking the person for thinking of me, explaining that some shifts had occurred in my person life which would disallow me from taking on the responsibility because I wouldn’t be able to give it the time and energy it deserved, offering the names of other brilliant women with whom I’d already consulted, also offering my ability to take one a few smaller tasks if needed, and then apologizing and asking for understanding.
It was a lot, and I felt wretched as I hit “send.” But the person’s response was swift, kind, and understanding, and I ended up feeling a wonderful peace. I also felt empowered because by saying “no,” I had more carefully cultivated a schedule that works for me.
The ultimate test of saying “no” is about to start for me as my coaching certification program gets going in late March. It’s going to eat up a lot of hours in my week that I’m currently using for other tasks or simply margin, but because it’s important to me, I’m willing to let this happen for a season.
Here are a few other ways I’m setting boundaries in my own life:
With my time. If my partner is home for dinner (and not tutoring or at his boxing club), I usually don’t do work after 7 pm because we’re making dinner and watching a show or a movie together before I go to bed at 10. I can’t tell you how difficult it is to do this in grad school. There’s sort of this expectation that everyone stays up doing work at all hours of the night like I did as an undergrad. But once I realized that adult me needs evenings to connect with loved ones or recharge alone, I dropped the work-all-night expectation.
If my partner isn’t home, I still cook dinner and watch a show while I eat, and then I might do some light work until about 9 pm or so. But that’s it. Limiting my evening work and going to bed at a time that allows me to get 8 hours of sleep has allowed me to feel like a human again.
My partner designated Saturdays as his day off during football season. He would often grill, if the weather was nice, and kind of putz around the house doing various chores he likes doing and watch the game. I could see how it recharged him and gave him energy for the week ahead.
I also have certain times of day when I don’t check email or social media: first thing in the morning and right before bed. I just don’t need the stress that may come in over email or the comparison or feeling of lack that may arise on social media right when I wake up or when I’m trying to power down.
With my schedule and to-do list. I used to make these massive to-do lists and schedule every task right down to the minute. It’s no wonder that I went to bed most nights feeling drained and disappointed. I could never accomplish everything on the list, and I rarely did it in the time that I had allotted.
I’ve learned how much I am capable of exerting myself during the day, how to prioritize what is most important to me, and that everything always takes much longer than I think it will, and that’s not even accounting for unexpected bumps along the way.
There are some nonnegotiables in my schedule, like exercise and cooking and journaling and meditating. Beyond those things, I can usually work on three major tasks. I always do the hardest one first or the one that is most important or fills me up the most. For instance, today I am writing this blog post first thing because it is a priority to me, even though I also need to work on an application and read for class. Those things take less mental energy, however, and can wait until afternoon.
I rarely designate how long tasks will take me. I trust that I will work on them as much as I need to, and then move on to the next thing. Progress over perfection, my friends. As long as I work on the three main tasks before it’s time to go to the gym or cook dinner, I end my day feeling accomplished.
I accept that on days with lots of appointments or commitments, like meetings or teaching, I won’t have much time to work on my projects in big chunks. I accept 15 minutes here and there as enough. And if I’m super tired, like I usually am after a day of teaching, I let myself rest by watching a show or taking a short nap. Listening to my body and intuition helps me decide what is best for me after a busy day of serving others.
With my chores. I used to be a neat freak. Like, I needed the house to spotless or I couldn’t relax. I would beat myself up for not being able to manage the house and get all my work done. Rather than taking time for myself, I would vacuum or mop or scour the bathroom or Windex the windows.
This was not filling me up.
Now, my house is a little messy most of the time. We vacuum maybe once a week, if the dog’s fur tumble weeds get really bad. I clean the bathroom when I start to notice it getting a little unsanitary or if we have guests coming. I like to do the dinner dishes before bed because I like walking into a clean kitchen in the morning, but if they sit in the sink while we watch a movie, or if it’s a late night and we don’t get to them until morning, I don’t stress. The dog’s toys are strewn all over the house at any given moment, there’s a stack of library books on the dining table, and shoes litter the entry way.
But it’s okay.
I now see these little messes as evidence of a life well-loved/lived. When I look back on my life, do I want to remember being super stressed all the time but having a clean house at all costs? Or do I want to remember the fun, cozy times I had with my partner and my dog, even if the house was a little disordered?
If you can set boundaries in your life to dedicate more time to doing things you love, things that fill you up, be it rest, play, or important passion projects, what is stopping you? Is it your fear of judgment or disappointing others? Do you feel like you need to be a woman who does it all, whose kitchen sparkles and to-do list is all crossed off? What might this be costing you? What kind of life do you want to have and remember? Will you remember feeling overextended and drained, or filled with love and happiness?
If you have important boundaries you’ve set in your life, let me know in the comments! I’m especially interested if this is a gendered stressor–do guys have the same issues with wanting to be everything to everyone? Hopefully, we can all learn that saying “no” often leads to saying “yes” to something more meaningful for us.