Just Say No

When I was young, I was taught that obedience was a good thing.  If a teacher or one of my parents asked me to do something, I knew without a doubt that I was supposed to actually do it.  Life was better when I did what was expected of me, and failure to comply often brought unpleasant repercussions. So I learned early on to complete those classroom assignments, to do my chores at home, and in general, and to help out when I was asked to do so.  And to one degree or another, that lesson has stuck with me throughout my life.

In most ways, it’s been a good thing.  I had no problem accepting assignments from my bosses or my editors, and never felt any resentment at being “told what to do,” especially in situations where I was being paid to do it.  I believe it also instilled a sense of responsibility to others, which meant donating my time and money to worthy causes and helping people (and animals) as much as I possibly could.  It gave me a sense of duty, and I’m thankful for that.

But there’s a downside to being so quick to accept tasks and shoulder responsibility, and it’s called burn-out.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m feeling particularly stressed and overburdened, it’s usually because I have said “yes” when I really should have said “no,” or at the very least, “maybe later.” And that usually happens when I forget that the only person who truly knows exactly how much I can and cannot do is me.

All too often, I find myself taking on far more than I can reasonably handle.  And when it finally does sink in that I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew, I actually find myself getting angry with the people who have asked me to do the items on my to-do list that are stressing me out.  I act as if it was someone else’s fault that I didn’t have the good sense to recognize and respect my own limits, which is just plain silly.

The fact is that it’s up to me to set my own personal boundaries and to make good decisions about how I spend my time.  I’m the one who knows what my daily obligations are, and I’m the one who knows how much free time I have to devote to other causes.  Which means I’m the one whose job it is to make sure I’m not freaking out because I’ve over-committed my time, or forgotten that there are only twenty-four hours in a day.

Knowing where to draw the line between taking care of ourselves and meeting other people’s expectations and needs is a difficult thing.  It can take us a long time to learn how to establish our own personal boundaries.  But I think it’s important to remember that a big part of being a responsible adult is realizing that we can’t take care of anyone else if we don’t take care of ourselves while we’re at it.

79 thoughts on “Just Say No

  1. I have gotten much better at it as I “mature.” 🙂 Yet I still put pressure on myself to do certain things – and not always important things. Then there are the important things – like exercise and taking better care of myself that I often neglect. Must practice balance – must repeat daily! 🙂

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    • I just can’t help but wonder if that is why we feel so compelled to do what we are asked to do as we get older? And yet we aren’t children any more, so we need to make our own choices. I don’t understand why it can be so hard, but it sure can. Thanks for the comment!

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  2. I often had a hard time delegating in the work world. If I was given a project, I felt like I had to do it all. I didn’t say no to the project (of course), but I would say no to offers of help. Now that I’ve been away for awhile, I have found my voice. I feel very comfortable only taking on what I can – and want to – do, and I feel much more comfortable asking for assistance. I wish it hadn’t taken this long to get here.

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    • I know what you mean! Why does it take us so long to feel comfortable not trying to be all things to all people? And yet it seems to be an almost universal problem, especially for the young. As we age, we get more comfortable just being ourselves and using our own good judgement.

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  3. Gotta do more. Gotta BE more. It’s an addiction drum beat to march too isn’t it? But I hate stumbling when the pace gets frenzied, especially when I’m the one that added the “extra drums.”

    Glad I’m not the only one that has a hard time finding the right pace to set.

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    • Trust me, you are not! And how exactly does that mantra about being and doing more get in our heads in the first place? Maybe it is a natural progression from trying to please the adults in our lives when we were children, but then again, maybe not. All I know is that I really do need to stop adding those “extra drums.”

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  4. Ann, my above comment is in response to Bun’s 😉
    But I too agree with everybody up there, it is hard to get out of a habit which was drilled into one as a child by parents, teachers, Clergy etc. Now that I am older too I am able to say NO to things I can not do 100% well or quickly enough – and how does the saying goes “….one is never too old to learn ….”😉😉😉

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    • I think learning to say “no” is one of the advantages to aging, or at least it is for my generation. (And I loved your reply to Bun’s comment…and somehow think that his wife is in no danger of losing her morning cup of coffee.) Hope you have a wonderful day!

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  5. Ann, you are absolutely correct and I can so relate to this. I constantly say ok and then resent the person(s) who asked me to do something. It would be easier to say no, but that little word is so hard to say. It takes a while to learn and like you I too am trying that sometimes its ok to say no.

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    • My daughter struggles with this as well. And when I found myself telling her that she needs to learn to establish her own personal boundaries, I suddenly realized that this was advice I ought to be giving myself! Because I think she got that habit from me.

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        • I know..it is sad. But I try to remember that others don’t always know how busy I am, and it’s up to me to let them know what I can or can’t do. But if I tell them I’m not able to do something and they still push me to do it, then I have found out something about their character for sure.

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  6. My goodness, we are very different people.

    I never did my homework, always skipped out on chores, interpreted orders as suggestions and refused to read manuals or follow instructions.

    But I did very well in life as did my buddy Stan, who is very much the same way. There are only two strategies for people like us (other than jail), either become a pioneer in a field where rules do not exist, or take the Stan route and become so good at something that you are beyond rules.

    You are wise though. If you live in a world of lines, you need to set personal boundaries and respect those of others.

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    • I remember saying to a friend that “Just once, I want to be the bad one who is breaking all the rules!” And she told me that my fate is to always be the goody-goody who is following along behind the group saying, “Guys, I don’t think this is such a good idea.” Which she said no one would ever listen to, which put me in charge of raising the bail money.
      Honestly, the way I can tell when I feel passionately about something is those rare occasions when I do charge in and do what I think is right, no matter what is involved. But I can’t post any of those stories on a public blog, because then no one would be around to post the bail for me.
      And know that in my own quiet way, I admire people like you and Stan!

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      • Stan and I have both reflected at length how easy our lives would have been had we only followed the rules. We certainly would not be in the same place, things would be different – but oh, so much easier.

        We envy you. 🙂

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  7. It took me two + decades to set boundaries for myself. Life is much better with them and I’ve learned that “self-care” is not the same as “selfish.” Older and wiser…plus the bonus is I have no guilt about elevating my needs to the same level as everyone else’s…great post!

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  8. I always set a time limit to things such as lesson planning or listening to a needy friend. When others start to impose, I turn off my time with them and that included social media. I would rather be friendless than have a friend who abuses that privilege of using my time as a sounding board with no concern for my life. If I didn’t set a time limit to some things, I would keep reworking them till they were perfect for everyone but there is no such animal.

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    • Time limits are a good idea. Because we all have “that friend” who will take up huge amounts of our time if we allow them to. And, as you say, if not being available 24/7 means they no longer are our friend, then that’s certainly not a loss at all.

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      • Yes or when they try to involve our husband by asking him for recommendations regarding units (housing) and then not following his advice. Never come between a couple in a relationship. In this case, loss of a fair weather friend.

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    • Isn’t it though? I’ll think I’ve mastered the art of protecting my time (and sanity) by saying no when I need to, and then I’ll turn right around and start handing out “yesses” with wild abandon!

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  9. It has been a huge and painful decision for me to decide to let my paramedic license lapse soon. And to also not work or volunteer in human healthcare anymore. It’s for a lot of the reasons mentioned here–I like the term: compassion fatigue. It took me a long time to realize this about myself. I’m glad I’ve been someone who never said no for so long, but I’m equally as glad I finally learned it’s OK to say it now. Because you are very right: we are no good to anyone (or any animal) if we are just plain worn out. xo

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    • Thank you! When I started this blog, I wanted to write about things that most of us “middle agers” (and above) are dealing with. I’m glad that it is striking a chord with others!

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  10. Very true. When I wake up worrying about the day ahead I know I’ve taken on too much. At work, I just got in with it. In retirement, I’ve learned to take a step back and readjust because now I know I don’t HAVE to feel this way.

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  11. There’s a paradox in this, it seems to me, Ann, in that the honest person — which I’m quite certain you always were — is often unable to be honest with others about their true feelings, and it’s often felt easier by them to pretend (‘lie’ is too strong a term). I think it’s to do with avoiding unpleasant feelings, don’t you?

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    • I think it is to avoid unpleasant feelings, and also to avoid letting someone down. I am basically an honest person, but I am also the type who tries to “make everything alright,” which doesn’t always work. And then when I feel overwhelmed, I do have a hard time letting someone know I may have over-committed, which is also to avoid unpleasant feelings. I suppose life would be easier if I didn’t care about disappointing others, but that’s not who I am either! Complicated, isn’t it?

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  12. This is so true! Recently I have been doing a fair amount of crying on people’s shoulders. Metaphorically….except once. And the real problem has been that at work I am completely incapable of saying no to a supervisor. I don’t mean the things that we all have to do and obviously no one would ever say no. But if I’m asked to do anything extra, I automatically say yes. Then get upset that I’m so tired,etc. When I’m just doing what I agreed to do and usually, I don’t even inquire about how much time and energy “it” is going to take. We have to take care of ourselves first. Thank you for the reminder!

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    • Oh, Barb, don’t be hard on yourself! I think some of us are just “hardwired” to help other people and do whatever they ask us to do. And then it is so easy to get overwhelmed. I do it at the shelter all the time: “The ten dogs back in the sick ward need to be walked (after I’ve walked twelve others on the adoption floor)? Sure, I’ll do it!” And then I get all bitchy when I finally get home, sore and exhausted. Learning to say no, and to recognize our mental and physical limits, is an art that takes some time to develop. The main thing is to keep trying.

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  13. I loved reading this and listen to you go through the process of understanding what you can and cannot do based on your limitations and burnout level. I guess there’s a balance of doing the things you love and being drawn into things that others want you to love😊
    Now that you have the plan all you have to do is execute the plan..:)

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  14. I believe with the life experience you have, dear Ann, you know the difference between a person who really needs your help (often or not, it does not matter) and the one who is out to make you his or her slave. It took me a long time to say no to the latter type. As to bringing coffee to my wife, I go even a bit further and make breakfast every day and even leap from my chair to get her a second cup.I don’t do it out of sense of duty, but because I like to do it. Do I make any sense?

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    • It absolutely makes sense! You do it because it shows your love for her. And I think you are right, we do learn to tell the difference between those who really need our help, and those who either enjoy bossing us around or are pawning off their own jobs on others. The first we should always help, the second, we need to learn to say “no.” Thanks Peter!

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  15. Oh my goodness…I do this ALL THE TIME! And then I get so overwhelmed that my anxiety and panic disorder kicks into high gear and I can’t function at all. And while I know that “no” is a complete sentence, I am by nature a people pleaser and I want to help. So I say yes. I have to get better at setting boundaries.

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  16. What begins as a way to please the big people and get rewarded as a child, can indeed become a burden and source of anxiety in our adult lives. With awareness and self compassion we can recognize the habitual response and pause in order to take care of our needs too 💕
    The question that comes to my mind is – Is it real compassion for others, when we cannot be compassionate towards ourselves?… xo

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  17. You hit the nail on the head with your very last sentence. We can’t be effective to other people if we’ve neglected ourself. I think that comes with age, experience and wisdom. Here’s to not always towing the line but acknowledging and respecting our own needs and wants too. Another well written and very relatable post Ann. xo

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  18. You described this dilemma perfectly, Ann. When to say NO? How much to help others/committees/groups/friends/family without the risk of completely denuding ourselves of energy and enjoyment? When I was younger, raising a family, I did waaaay too much, never saying no to church and women’s organizations and school volunteering and extra work assignments. Exhausts me thinking about it. Now, I watch my daughter do the same. But I keep my mouth shut, because she’s doing what she feels she needs to do. Me? I read more, write more, walk more, hunker down in my cozy house more, and take care of myself and my guy more. And I don’t feel guilty about it (most times….) ;-0

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    • That sounds just like me! Once when my children were young, I was having a hard time getting to sleep because I was so worried about all the stuff I had to do. So I decided to make a list, and then figured I could stop worrying about forgetting anything. My list had 14 major tasks on it had to be completed within the next few days, and all of it was volunteer stuff, mostly church and school. That’s when I realized that I was over-committed. These days, I’m more careful about saying “yes” although I still need to work on it, especially at the animal shelter where I volunteer. I’m glad you’re learning not to feel guilty about taking care of yourself!

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    • It’s not easy, is it? And it’s even harder when we know that what we are being asked to do is important, or as you say, something we would really like to do. But it’s so easy to get over-committed if we are too quick to say “yes.” I guess it’s something most of us struggle with, one way or another. Thanks for your comment!

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