**This article was also featured in Elephant Journal. Read it here.

I’ve been fighting a flu lately. I work in a medical services centre, so I’m immersed in germ-city 8 hours a day. I’ve been told it will eventually make my immune system an indestructible machine–this is sort of my prolonged initiation. At least this way, if I ever have kids, this way I’ll be one step ahead of the other moms.

Anyhow, last night I was in bed at 8:30, feeling particularly nauseous and shivering in spite of my microwaved pillow-case of rice (a handy alternative to a hot water bottle or heating pad, btw), and I started fretting about the likely possibility of calling in sick the next day. “How will my clients survive without me? I’m booked until Jan 7th…when will I fit them in?”My colleagues will think I’m taking a long weekend–who calls in sick on a Monday?” “God. I’m always sick. I’ve got to start taking better care of myself. I shouldn’t have gone out this weekend. So irresponsible!” And all of a sudden I was no longer alone in my bed. There was Guilt, snoring loudly beside me.

This is a common argument I have in my head every time I call in sick or cancel something. One part of me tells myself I’m lying, faking it, making excuses. The other part of me gets all defensive and tries to rationalize: “But I’ll get everyone else sick! I won’t be able to concentrate if I feel like I’m going to throw up!” “I need rest and hydration!” And then the critical voice goes, “Well maybe if you didn’t spend so much time socializing or drinking wine, you’d be over this flu by now!” (Side-bar: My dad used to tell me I “socialized” too much growing up…interesting how the only time I use that word is when I’m beating myself up for doing it) Anyway, you were just privy to my “Sick Script”–the script I go through whenever I’m feeling conflicted about doing something (calling in sick) that goes against my worldview promoting discipline and commitment.

I’ve always had a lot of trouble saying “No” or turning down opportunities.This hasn’t always been the healthiest of ways to operate, and has led to many instances of being overwhelmed, over-stressed, over-inebriated, or resentful towards people and activities that were intended to bring the opposite (although it’s produced some entertainingly awkward dating stories…).

Are you of the mindset where you can “never turn down an opportunity?” Do you feel guilty rejecting people, positions, possibilties? Do you experience cyclical “breakdowns” where the stress of responsibility just becomes too much? Then this post is for you.

How did we get this way?

As every person’s experience is unique, there’s no one reason as to why you might feel obliged to say Yes all the time. Years of therapy, education, and self-reflection have helped me understand better why I’ve developed such associations, and chances are you might identify with some of the reasons:

1) Parentification (Experiential Learning):

Parentification occurs when a child ends up parenting their own parent, as a result of the parent being mentally, emotionally, or physically incapacitated (e.g. due to illness, substance abuse, grief, depression, etc.). This is one of those words us Psych-junkies attach to a common and not necessarily negative phenomenon, but by labelling it we make it seem rare or pathological. I’m actually extremely thankful for my experience of parentification, as I think it is a largely contributing factor to what makes me good at my job (see “advantages”). Of course, that is not to say it is a favourable parenting-style; rather, we’re human, and shit happens to parents, too. When that shit becomes too much, their child(ren) end(s) up with more responsibilities than your typical third-grader, and those might involve providing instrumental or emotional support for their parent. Anyhow, long story short, I was one of those children, and therefore my worldview emphasizes values such as “ensuring others’ needs are met first,” “help those in need if you are able” and “Your worth is determined by your ability to do for others.” Once again, this directed me into my current profession (when other 8 year-olds wanted to be singers and actresses, I knew I wanted to be a therapist), gives me a ton of meaning, and makes me feel good about myself, but it also makes me feel really awful if I don’t abide by those “rules.” Being aware of how my early childhood experiences contribute to my “need to please” helps me recognize when my “guilt” is coming from a maladaptive place.

2) Implicit and Explicit Messages in Society:

We are products of our genetics and our life experiences, and our life experiences are influenced tremendously by our parents and society. We are continually fed messages like, “Be ambitious–never turn down an opportunity,” “Never quit,” “Put others first,” “Being selfish is bad,” “Live to please others,” “Self-sacrifice is a good thing,” “If someone is in pain, you must help them!” “Leisure time should be spent reading or exercising”…The list goes on. Do any of these resonate for you? Try to think about the “messages” by which you live your life, and if how they influence your ability to say “No” to people or opportunities.

3) Gender:

As I mentioned, there are a whole host of things that contribute to feeling obliged to help or say yes, and it is therefore of course not solely a women’s issue. However, virtually all cultures and societies, not to mention biology (child-bearing, breast-feeding) put more pressure on women to be nurturing, care-taking, and relational. From the moment we’re old enough to play with toys, our behaviour is shaped. Girls take care of dolls and play with kitchen sets where they make “food” for others. Beauty and nurturance are celebrated; Boys play with Lego and action heroes  Building, independence, and heroism are celebrated. In the schoolyard, girls’ play is more cooperative and communicative. Boys’ is more competitive and instrumental. In adulthood, “success” is often measured by a woman’s relational status, and by a man’s career status. Ultimately, existing “for others” is ingrained into women. Behaviours that, when executed by women, are viewed as “selfish,” are viewed as “independent” when executed by men. So, if you are a woman who struggles with saying no, it’s highly likely sociocultural influence has something to do with it.

Tips to Keep in Mind for Setting Boundaries and Preventing Over-Commitment:

  • Ask for Time: I used to feel a sense of urgency when someone asked me if I could do something, and this would lead me to say “Yes” before I had really considered what I was getting myself into. Then I would be faced with either a) flaking out on something I’d committed to or b) planting seeds for an ultimate breakdown. Unless you’re 100% certain you can/want to do what is being asked of you, ask for time to think about it. “Sounds like a great opportunity. Let me give it some thought and get back to you” never offended anyone.
  • People are generally more resilient and self-sufficient that we give them credit for: Sometimes I get this whole martyr idea in my head that my clients/friends/family NEED me to survive. As friends, family members, even therapists, we are there to enhance people’s lives, not lead them. Aside from cases of severe cognitive/physical impairment or infancy, people (even children) are generally more adept than we give them credit for. Take a step back, and you might be surprised by a person’s agency in when challenged.
  • Being “selfish” is a good thing: You can be selfish, or you can be a sucker…what do you choose? I’m kidding, obviously there is an in-between, but the word “selfish” has SUCH an unnecessarily negative connotation. If you’re not living your life for yourself, who are you living it for? If you haven’t heard the “oxygen mask” metaphor before, think of yourself as being on a plane if/when the oxygen masks drop down. We’re taught to put them on ourselves first before putting them on children/compromised folks (um, ideally. In reality, I would likely be the person cursing and sweating and converting to some religion). This is because we can’t take care of others if we’re not taking care of ourselves. So, if you can’t “be selfish” for yourself, be selfish for everyone else!
  • There will always be another opportunity, and just because you say “No” to something now doesn’t mean you can’t take it on in the future: We often fear turning down an opportunity because we believe this is the only time we’ll have it. There will always be something more to do, take on, or experience. Similarly, just because you say “No” now doesn’t mean you can’t revisit the idea in the future. Ask yourself if taking on the responsibility will enhance, clutter, or (insert appropriate word here) your life.
  • It’s better to take on and enjoy a few pleasurable activities (e.g. team, occasional date), rather than taking on and resenting EVERYTHING and EVERYONE: When I first became single, I frantically filled my life with every extracurricular and activity I could. I took on 3 jobs, a volunteer position, two soccer teams, tennis and kickboxing lessons, and started dating like some people knit (avoidance, anyone?). Some of these necessary distractions and activities were welcomed, but I ended up setting myself up to feel stressed and resentful whenever I had a game/lesson/date. It’s been tough cutting some of these things out, particularly when instructors and teammates express displeasure around my decisions, but whenever I long for any that I’ve ceased for the time-being, I remind myself of the stress, resentment and exhaustion I used to feel as a result of the commitments.
  • It’s impossible to please everyone, so aim to please yourself: Varying tastes are what make our society the beautifully eclectic place that it is. However, those varying tastes (and wants, and needs) make it impossible to meet everyone’s desires. Some people love my blog. Some people hate it. Some people like spending time with me. Other people want to poke their eyes out. We are in charge of our own lives, where we choose to put our energy, and how we gain fulfillment and meaning. Judgment is a part of life, at least for now, and we are socialized to find flaws in everyone and everything. Aim to please yourself–at least then you can be confident one person will be satisfied as a result.
  • You can’t help everyone: This is one I struggle with frequently. I often feel anxious and powerless, thinking about all the people I’m NOT helping who are out there, suffering. But I am one person. You are one person. We do what we can, but we can’t do everything. We can’t help everyone. Focus on what you are doing, how you are contributing. Just as there will always be another something to take on, there will always be another person in pain to help.
  • Awareness, awareness, awareness: Ah, the theme of everything I write. Being aware of how the previously-mentioned contributors influence your guilt, need to please, and difficulty setting boundaries, you have made the first step in change :). Try to keep this awareness more in the forefront of your mind, and you might be able to act differently next time you’re presented with a request or opportunity.

After several breakdowns, failed relationships and friendships, awkward dates and extracurricular activities in which had no interest in participating, I’ve finally started to say “No” more. I’ve let opportunities “pass by,” albeit with anxiety and conflict, because experience has shown me what trying to do everything will do to me. I’ve lost a few close friendships, been called “flaky,” failed to follow through on my word, and have no doubt hurt some feelings. But I experience less of that pervasive anxiety that accompanies responsibility, I can enjoy a spontaneous or restorative Sunday if I choose to, and I don’t go on second dates out of guilt (although I have less awkward stories as a result). Hope some of these tips work for you!

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