The Art of Saying No

The Art of Saying No

If there's anything that I needed to learn last year, it was how to say no. I have the unfortunate tendency to overbook myself… a lot. I love to help out with things, be a part of community, encourage people. And if I'm being completely honest, it feels nice to be needed and well-liked. It's nice to have someone telling you that you're doing a good job.  And in the more selfless moments, it's hard to say no to being a part of things that you know are good and could potentially benefit a large group of people.

But somewhere along the line, I let the good things in my life pile up to the point where they stopped being good things. The bible studies, the small groups, the meetings, the music practices. It all became so overwhelming that I didn't have time or energy to even go out for coffee and catch up with friends. And it snuck up on me. At the start of the semester I honestly thought it was going to be alright, that I would manage just fine to balance my heavy course load, volunteer commitments, church, family, and friends. Clearly, that was not the case.

There was a time last spring when I had an awful panic attack that left me hyperventilating in a university bathroom for over an hour. I had taken on too much, and an innocent Facebook message asking a question about an event I was coordinating sent me over the edge. In the fall, I came down with the influenza after months without allowing myself to rest. I spent an entire week in bed, unable to do anything besides sleep and watch TV. I didn't take a break, so my body took one for me. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. If I could go back and tell myself to do less, I would. But I wouldn't be writing this if I hadn't, so maybe something good will come out of it after all.

Moses is one of my favorite people in the Bible. He went through a lot of crap, did a lot of crap, and was still used by God in the most incredible ways. Exodus 18 documents a conversation between Moses and his father-in-law.  Moses spent a lot of his time mediating disputes between the Israelites when they were wandering around in the desert.  There were days when he would be surrounded by people from dawn until dusk, never able to take a break.  His father-in-law noticed this pattern, and said to Moses:

"What you are doing is not good.  You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you.  You are not able to do it alone." (v. 17-18 ESV)

Real talk: Moses' father-in-law knew what he was talking about.  Moses needed the reminder that if he continued trying to be all things to all people, he would burn himself out and be unable to help anyone.  He needed to learn to reassess his priorities and accept help from others. In the end, he let other people take on some of the load he was carrying, and it allowed him to lead effectively in the long-term. It made all the difference between competence and collapse.

We need this reminder too, because even if we're working for the most noble cause in the world, we need to take the time to stay healthy.  We don't have an endless supply of stamina, and that's okay.  What we do have is the responsibility to take care of ourselves so that we can accomplish the tasks set before us, and accomplish them well.  The details of self-care look different for each person, but regardless, they are necessary.  Before you can help others, you need to be mentally and physically healthy. If you don't take care and allow yourself time to rest, eventually your body will take that time for you, and it's not pretty or fun. It doesn't matter how good an idea something appears at the time - if you can't commit well, don't commit at all.

I've got a few people in my life who periodically point out when I'm taking on too much, and I appreciate it so much. I know that sometimes I don't realize that I've said yes to too much until it's too late. Those same people are then the ones who are there for me in the messy aftermath. But now I'm more consciously working toward avoiding the inevitable breakdown by taking on less to begin with.

Last week, I said no to co-leading a bible study. I didn't want to say no, didn't want to disappoint. I felt like trash in the moment, knowing that a friend was hoping I would say yes. And it would have been a good thing in many ways. But I'm practicing the art of saying no. I want the good things I'm doing to remain good and beneficial, and not become a burden of obligations I feel I have to bear.

When we overcommit ourselves, we rapidly lose the joy in things that would normally make us happy. We start to do things just because we said we would, and no longer because we actually want to. And let me tell you, there is no faster way to resenting the things we do. We cannot singlehandedly keep organizations running. No matter how indispensable we think we are, there is always someone else that can help pick up the slack or replace us entirely.

If you are feeling overwhelmed and overscheduled, know this: saying no to new commitments you don't have time for does not make you a jerk. It does not make you a bad friend. It does not make you unreliable. Saying no means that you understand you are only one person, with a limited amount of time and energy. If you guard your time more carefully, it will ensure that the things you do say yes to are done well. You will be glad you did, and so will the people depending on your commitment.

Life is about quality, not quantity. There is no prize for surviving the most self-inflicted stress breakdowns. This isn't a 100 meter sprint, and we shouldn't treat it like one. We need to pace ourselves. Please, please remember that. Moses needed that reminder. I need that reminder. We all need that reminder. Take care of yourselves, friends.