I feel like everyone, both single and married, can easily struggle with saying no. My independent and self-sufficient nature (or attempts at such) have made me into someone who struggles with saying no, even when I know I should. Either out of the fear of letting someone down or the honest belief that I’m superhuman, I take on almost anything and everything that comes my way.
In some ways, it’s a point of pride to be able to handle it all … I want to be seen as a reliable person, as someone whom people can come to for help and who won’t drop the ball. Unfortunately, this often leads to me scrambling to keep up. It’s not rare for me to frantically try to balance a freelance side project, my full-time career, relationships and a hobby. Sometimes I get lucky and am able to schedule my busy life oh-so-perfectly in such a way that all the little pieces fit together just right, like the perfect game of Tetris. Admittedly, I get a great sense of accomplishment when things work out like this. However, life is not static — even when things can be scheduled without overlap. Life happens, things take longer than anticipated, variables that easily knock my beautifully planned schedule out of whack exist in all areas of life. Then I become an overly stressed-out crazy person who seems to think that life itself hangs in the balance — and that if I, myself, cannot fix every variable in a timely manner, the world around me will collapse.
OK, that might sound a bit dramatic, but it’s more accurate than I’d like to admit. There are dozens of strategies for time management and planning that I could apply to my tendency to over-commit. Then there’s a better option: stop over-committing! I admittedly set myself up for failure when I take on more than I can handle, and even worse, I still manage to do it all sometimes. I set the bar for what I seem to be capable of handling way higher than it needs to be.
Yeah, so this one time I successfully balanced a full-time job, side projects, triathlon training and meaningful relationships all at the same time … but that doesn’t mean that pattern is sustainable.
Working on a wire like that is not sustainable, and I don’t think we were created to spread ourselves so thin. If I’m trying to balance half a dozen other roles at the same time, I cannot be the best version of myself in any of the roles I take on. Yes, all of the roles can co-exist, but I have to maintain balance. If my triathlon training ramps up before a big race, I shouldn’t take on an extra side project. If I take on a side project, I should be able to commit to working the hours required. If thinking about project timelines makes me feel anxious and stressed, I need to step back and say, “not this time.” One single “no” doesn’t mean I will never have the opportunity again. This goes for social invitations, races, networking events, side projects, hobbies, travel, etc.
I’ve always had this underlying fear that if I don’t help that friend out or take on that task, I’m letting someone down. In the back of my mind, I hear the subtle sound of someone I respect or care about telling me they’re disappointed. Then comes the creeping fear that if I let them down, they’ll never rely on me again. If it’s a friend, the fear is that they’ll move on and not need my friendship anymore. If it’s a professional situation, the fear is that I’ve missed my chance.
The challenge for me has been to realize that the world can function without me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t matter. I can say no and not be forgotten. If, by chance, I don’t get any more invitations from a friend after my last declined invite, am I really that worse off? Not if that’s all it takes for that person to let me go. If I pass up an opportunity, has it ever really meant that opportunities for me will never happen again? No.
So even though I’ve come to the point of accepting that it’s okay to say no, the question still remains: How do I say no? For me, the first step is setting the right boundaries. But where do I go from there? How can I gracefully turn down an opportunity without letting someone down?
If it means the difference between getting burned out or not — between succeeding and just getting by — I have to be okay with passing up a good opportunity.