This originally appeared on Mamamia. Republished here with permission.
My energy and my time is finite. By saying “no,” I’ve disappointed people and I’ve missed some interesting opportunities. But the payoff so far has been big.
When I posted this on Facebook, the response was immediate:
I’m not sure how this became The Year Of Saying No. I certainly didn’t make a New Year’s Resolution or anything. They’re futile. Or rather, the idea of me sticking to anything I resolve to do while in a deep state of Christmas holiday relaxation is futile.
Perhaps it was simply a reaction to the way last year ended for me. I found myself limping to the finish line of 2013, drained and spent. A bunch of commitments I’d said yes to at various times throughout the year came to a head during September, October, and November in a clusterfuck of epic proportions.
I was on a plane every week, sometimes twice a week. I had speaking engagements, client presentations, charity gigs, MC gigs, media commitments on top of my day job as a digital publisher and my 24/7 job as a mother of three kids.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not suggesting you send me flowers. I’m not hearing violins as I type this. I am perfectly aware that there are many people worse off than me who have to deal with far harsher and less temporary circumstances. I’m just giving some context (me? defensive?).
What had I been thinking when I’d said yes to so many people? Some of the commitments were not negotiable, but many of them were. I could have said no. But I didn’t, because like so many women, I am inherently a people-pleaser.
If you too are a people-pleaser, the following scenario will be familiar to you:
1. Someone asks you to do something. You do not know this person very well. There is not much in this for you. Saying yes will cost you valuable time—time that will have to be stolen from someone or something else currently in your life. The only winner will be the person who asked you to do something.
2. You say yes.
3. By doing so, Today You avoids the momentary discomfort involved in saying no. The person who asked is thrilled. You feel the quick hit of relief that you didn’t have to disappoint anyone. Yet. This is the happiest time in this process. It will be fleeting. Enjoy it.
4. Because the moment you said yes, you bought a much bigger problem for Future You. When the time comes to do whatever you’ve agreed to, things and people in your life will suffer. You will suffer. So essentially, you’ve put the wants and needs of someone who isn’t close to you ahead of people who are.
And remember what they say about putting your own oxygen mask on first? If you don’t, you’ll pass out and be of no use to anyone else.
By saying no, I have been putting my own oxygen mask on and prioritizing the needs of the people who rely on me—my family, my workmates—over people who aren’t nearly as important in my life.
My energy and my time is finite. By saying no, I’ve disappointed people and I’ve missed some interesting opportunities. But the payoff so far has been big. I have routine in my life and the lives of my family and staff. I am a much more constant and predictable presence. And I function best when my life is the same most days. I like the predictability of it and I find it gives me more headspace to be creative and (try not to vomit) present.
And there’s another way to look at saying no: It’s simply setting boundaries. Generally, I find people with lax boundaries are more stressed, resentful, anxious, and overwhelmed than the average bear.
Oprah’s life guru, Brene Brown, social researcher and author of Daring Greatly says that setting boundaries is the key to staying sane:
The moment someone asks you to do something you don’t have the time or inclination to do is fraught with vulnerability. “Yes!” often seems like the easiest way out. But it comes at a price: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “Sure!” in my squeaky, I-can’t-believe-I’m-doing-this voice, only to spend hours, even months, feeling angry and resentful. For women, there’s a myth that we’re supposed to do it all (and do it perfectly). Saying no cues a chorus of inner shame gremlins: “Who do you think you are?” “You’re not a very caring [mother/wife/friend/colleague].”
Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others. We can’t base our own worthiness on others’ approval (and this is coming from someone who spent years trying to please everyone). Only when we believe, deep down, that we are enough can we say “Enough!”
When I was writing this, I got invited to do something I really felt obliged to do. Saying no still doesn’t come automatically for me. My instinct is still to say yes. To somehow deal with the consequences down the line. But I pushed myself to deal with this person’s disappointment, which, I have to say, is never as great as you think it will be.
“Sorry,” I said via email. “I would have loved to do it but with work and family commitments, I’m just not able to do it.”
“Thanks for getting back to me so quickly,” replied this person (I hear this a lot—people are usually so grateful just to have a firm answer, even if it’s no). “I totally understand.”
And that is how easy it usually is. Be honest. Explain you’re overwhelmed and over-committed and your job or your kids or your life just can’t spare you this time.
Because who can argue with that?
Mia Freedman is the editor and publisher of Mamamia.com.au, the website she founded in 2007 when she left traditional media and didn’t quite know what else to do next. You can follow Mia on twitter @miafreedman.