21 Sep 2012

How to Say No

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Recently, I was trying to get together with a group of women to discuss a powerful, exciting new project we’re working on. We emailed back and forth for over a week trying to find a time to meet. As is usually the case with groups, there was no one perfect time that worked for everyone. Some people could come for an hour this night; others could only meet on that night. Still others could stop by for a minute, but only if they could bring their kids. Others didn’t really have a free night that week, but could call for a speakerphone conference between work, school, and kids…

When did we all get so busy?

It seems like we’re all increasingly overcommitted. We rush from work to meetings to kids’ events to family obligations and then—maybe, if we’re not dead on our feet by then—to yoga or meditation. In between, we’re answering emails, texts, and phone calls and trying to stay on top of housework, grocery shopping, and other day-to-day tasks. On top of that, we may or may not try to eat healthfully and get a full night of sleep.

I’m certainly guilty of over-commitment syndrome myself. This summer, I found myself totally overcommitted. Between my counseling work, teaching yoga, and other projects, I was working seven days a week. I had very little time to myself and what little free time I did have, I tried to give to my husband, out of a feeling of guilt for neglecting him. I’d gone months without a full day of rest and relaxation. One night, I had a full-on, sobbing, come-apart meltdown. I couldn’t take it anymore. I laid on my bed, with my distraught husband by my side, saying over and over, “I’m just so tired!” Clearly, something had to give.

I came up with a plan. For the entire month of August, I practiced saying no. I didn’t take on any weekend subbing gigs or extra meetings outside of work obligations. I blocked off entire Saturdays on my calendar with the word “REST” in all caps. I even resisted the urge to clean or take on new home improvement projects with all that free time. I forced myself to say “no” to activity and embraced stillness and rejuvenation. I even took a weekend getaway to a quiet cabin the woods with the specific intent to do pretty much nothing.

And it was awesome.

I emerged from the month of August feeling more refreshed and relaxed than I had in months. Saying no to extra obligations gave me the energy to say yes a new job. My teaching has taken on new life and depth. I have more energy to see friends and family. Saying no for a little while gave me back the energy to say yes.

Saying no isn’t easy. Everyone struggles with some degree of guilt over saying no to requests from loved ones or co-workers. And many of us have a hard time prioritizing self over others. But saying no on occasion is crucial to preventing burnout, exhaustion, overwhelm, and big ol’ scary meltdowns like the one I had this summer.

Saying no can take lots of different forms. Sometimes it means literally saying no to an invitation or obligation. Other times it means turning off the cell phone or walking away from the computer. I recommend to my clients and yoga students that they do one less thing than they think they’re capable of. In other words, every day, look at what you’ve committed to doing, and cut out one thing. We often schedule ourselves beyond our limits, so cutting out that one thing will bring us back into a healthy energetic-output range. Or if we weren’t already beyond our limits, it will create space for quiet moments of rest, relaxation, and mindfulness of the moment.

Amazing things happen when we start saying no in a healthy way. Other people start to respect our boundaries. We have more energy to invest in self and others. Creative energy gets freed up, and we move through life with more ease and intention.

And who wouldn’t want to say yes to that?

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