No. It’s one of the first words we learn.
Have a toddler? Then you’re VERY familiar with the word, as it’s probably come out of your toddler’s mouth–and your own– more than you’d like.
“No, we’re not having cookies for breakfast.”
“No, you can’t cut your hair.”
“No, you can’t play with Mommy’s phone.”
No. No. No.
And yet, when it comes to other people, our ability to simply say no seems to sometimes go right out the window!
Believe me, I get it. I absolutely agonize over saying no. At my core, I want to make people happy and I want to be kind, I want to be helpful and I want to do the right thing. And so I say yes far too often, even when I know I should be saying no.
But a big part of decluttering our minds and getting unstuffed is learning how to clear our calendar of too many obligations and commitments. Because the reality is that in this day and age it is far too easy to fill up our schedules to the brim with things that we don’t really want to do that we’ve said yes to out of obligation and guilt.
And then we end up burned out, frustrated, tired and feeling like the joy has been sucked out of what we’re doing.
Or maybe it’s just me?
I’ve talked to enough fellow moms to know over-commitment is a viral issue. We volunteer as room parents, offer to organize the class party or lead the fall women’s group at church. We say yes to book club and Bunco night, yes to serving snacks at Saturday’s soccer game, yes to helping a friend paint her living room, yes to every minute request our boss asks of us, yes to the neighbor who needs us to watch her cat, yes to playdates and pickups and drop-offs too.
Then there are the times we give in to the yesses from our spouse, our kids and our family members. Our mother calls and needs help over the weekend. Our husband has a work get-together we really don’t want to attend but can’t get out of. Our kids are begging to go here and there and everywhere.
Saying yes too often leads to us spending money we don’t want to spend. It encroaches on our personal time. It eats away at our schedule and takes over our calendar. It leaves us without time to go to the gym, to read a book, or to simply think for five minutes
But where does it end?
Because here’s the thing–although sometimes it might feel selfish to say no in order to carve out more downtime, the alternative–a frazzled and stressed out, overworked and under-appreciated version of ourselves that no one (including ourselves) really likes being around–learning how to say no and eliminate the unessential is one of the kindest, most important things that we can do for the people that we love and the people that matter most.
So how can we handle saying no with grace? It’s not about creating a litany of excuses or subbing in one obligation for another or coming up with white lies and made-up reasons as to why we can’t do something. Instead, it’s about learning how to value our time enough to stand up for it, in a way that preserves both the relationship and our sanity.
Here are a few examples that might help:
The Party Invitation
I love parties, I do. I love the planning and the hosting and the creativity that goes into them. I love playing board games and trying new foods. I even enjoy dressing up when I get the chance. And most of the time, although I tend to be somewhat introverted around people I don’t know, I find social nights with friends and acquaintances fun and engaging. I like the opportunity to catch up and relish the chance to have some grownup conversation.
Sometimes though, an invitation comes up and we’d rather stay home. Maybe it’s been a long week or perhaps we’re just feeling burned out. Or sometimes it’s an invitation for a multilevel marketing get-together—those parties where someone is asking me to try the latest in makeup, cleaning products, cookware, clothing, jewelry or nail designs. And while I love supporting my friends’ business endeavors, the reality is that if I went to every one of those parties, I’d be broke. Sometimes it’s just not in the (credit) cards to attend.
But in these cases, honesty is always the best policy. Instead of making up excuses or lying about a conflicting engagement, simply be up front with your host or hostess, letting them know that you won’t be able to make it. If you’re asked to RSVP, do so right away. Prolonging the inevitable decline just leaves your host hanging and wondering how many to plan for and what the soiree’s going to look like.
A simple “thank you for the invitation, but we can’t make it,” is all you have to say. If you really can’t resist the desire to explain, you can say, “we’ve really been overcommitting ourselves lately and we need some family (or personal) time,” but truthfully, it’s not necessary.
The Repeat Favor
Friends in need shouldn’t be ignored. If you care for someone and they’re really in a pinch, then it’s kind-of your duty to roll up your sleeves and help. After all, that’s what friends do, right? And wouldn’t you want them to do the same for you? Maybe you don’t really WANT to walk your neighbor’s Shih Tzu four times a day while they go to an out-of-town funeral, but someday the roles could be reversed and you’ll feel so relived when they come to your aid.
That said, there are always those friends who need a LOT of favors–the ones who are always asking for something. A ride here and there is one thing, but a ride at 4 AM to the airport when a car service would suffice is quite another. If you feel your kindness is maxed out and you’re feeling stretched a little too thin, it’s time to set some appropriate boundaries.
As uncomfortable as it might seem, honesty is again the best policy. Don’t think of it as letting your friend down, but think of it as prioritizing your needs and the needs of your family. Say something like, “You’re my friend and I love you, and I don’t mind helping out when I can, but lately it has just been a little too much.”
If that feels too harsh or blunt, you could add, “I’m trying to cut back on my obligations because I’ve been feeling overcommitted. I’m sorry, but I can’t help this time.” Letting your friends know when you’re reaching your limit can make the difference between seething with resentment and feeling that happy glow when you’re able to assist a friend in need.
And if you friend gets angry or doesn’t understand? Then she wasn’t that good of a friend to begin with.
The Extended Playdate
Some moms have no problem putting their foot down when it comes to the inevitable, “Can Shelby sleep over? Her mom said yes,” as Shelby looks at you with a hopeful expression. But many moms (and dads!) succumb to the pressure or feel like a bad mom if they don’t give in.
And while kids do need friends and social time, and time to play and have fun, they also need to understand and respect their parents and to know that when you say “no,” it’s okay. If you really don’t want another slumber party, give yourself permission to decline.
I’ve experienced some playdates that turned into free babysitting…for hours and even days. Head it off on the front end by attaching a timeframe to playtime, and eliminating the possibility of the sleepover question from the start. Let kids know friends go home at a set time (such as 5:00pm) and that’s when family time takes place. Have an open conversation with Shelby’s mom as well. Let her know Shelby can come over from 3pm-5pm and she should also give you a heads up if she’s planning to go out or run errands in case something happens during the playdate.
And if the question still comes up? Be ready for it. Simply say “I’m sorry, but not this time. Let me talk to Shelby’s mom to see if we can plan a sleepover on a different night that works for both of us.”
The “Helpful” Advice
In-laws, friends and neighbors can often offer unsolicited advice…and we feel obligated to take it. I know someone who once got the world’s worst haircut–one she didn’t even need–simply because a very assertive friend insisted she use her stylist and hounded her until she called. Yikes.
Usually the unsolicited advice comes from a positive place. Someone is trying to be helpful and kind. They may have experience and wisdom they wish to share, and they may be responding to your uncertainty or insecurity. Maybe they feel by expressing your concerns or complaints, you’re actually seeking their guidance and help.
The first step is to recognize these “helpers” and consciously avoid saying things that may be construed as needy or requests. When someone offers you advice, you can certainly thank them, but set an appropriate distance by saying, “I’ll have to think about that,” or “I’m working on a few ideas right now, but I’ll definitely add your advice to the mix.”
Church, school, community events, neighborhood get-togethers, charity work…
While I do strongly believe that these opportunities greatly enhance our lives, and while I am a huge proponent of giving of your time, I also believe that there has to be limits on what we commit ourselves to. Because if we are not careful we can find ourselves secretly resenting the work or losing the spirit of charity by allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed or irritated that it’s encroaching on time with our families and spouse.
It isn’t easy to say no, especially when there are so many great opportunities out there to volunteer and help others out. I know I’ve been in school meetings where there’s call for room moms or help with Teacher Appreciation Week. It’s hard to resist the urge to volunteer, especially when you know the school desperately needs the help and no one else is stepping up.
Say yes to as many things as you can reasonably take on. But if you feel yourself burning out or feeling resentful, it’s time to say no. Pass the opportunity to help on to the next person, and don’t worry, there are plenty of chances to lean in and help out. Another will certainly come along shortly.
If you’re asked to take on something and your schedule (and mental health) just won’t allow, simply say something like, “I’d really love to help out, but right now my schedule just won’t allow it.” If you feel you must, offer an alternative, like, “I can’t take on planning the fundraiser right now, but I’d be happy to help with the Spring Fling,” or “I can’t teach the weekly Sunday school class right now, but please keep me in mind for other opportunities in the future.”
The Guilt Trip
In the same way guilt makes us hold onto items we don’t want or need, guilt can also drive us to take on activities we don’t really want to do.
Now, I realize in life you have to do some things that aren’t so pleasant—trips to the dentist, sweat sessions at the gym, household repairs. I get it. It would be lovely if our days were only filled with fun wonderful things we WANTED to do, but of course they aren’t. Still, there may be things on your schedule you’re doing out of a sense of obligation or because you feel guilty if you don’t. Give yourself permission to tell yourself “no.”
If you don’t really enjoy spin class, it’s okay to quit. If you hold a gym membership but never go, it’s fine to take up walking instead. If you have a garden but absolutely hate weeding and dread “dealing with it,” go to the farmer’s market and fill the bed with grass, mulch or something requiring minimal care.
As women, we often feel we have to cook, clean, sew and take on a whole slew of projects. There’s no set rule about what you have to do. If you don’t really enjoy sewing or scrapbooking, it’s okay to say no. This isn’t the Girl Scouts and there’s no merit badge for “She Who Takes On the Most Projects and Is the Best Homemaker.” If you’re not a big fan of baking, buy your cookies prepackaged and enjoy your talents elsewhere.
Take on projects that bring you joy, fill your life with positivity, or fill the lives with others in positive ways. Give yourself permission to use and say the word “no.” You may find you have more freedom to say “yes” to the things you really want to do!
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