4 tips for saying "I’d love to, but I can’t"

June 2, 2008 | Motherhood | 19 comments

Our discussion from Thursday about accepting help reminded me of something else I’ve struggled with that falls into this general category of “knowing and humbly accepting your limits”: saying no when I am asked to take on new responsibilities.

I think I am probably even worse at this than I am at accepting help. For some reason, I just cannot say no when people ask me to get involved with some project, ministry, organization, etc. Even when I know that I am completely maxed out and already have too much on my plate, I have a bad habit of signing myself up for even more responsibilities simply because I don’t know how to politely turn people down when they ask.

I’ve noticed that it’s hard to find concrete advice on this topic, perhaps because not everyone struggles with it (my husband, for example). A few months ago I told my husband about the stress I felt about being asked to head up a new ministry at our church. “How do I say no?!” I asked him.

He was confused by the question. “Well, start by placing your tongue on the upper soft palate of your mouth, and make an nnnnnn sound…” he quipped.

I tried this oh-so-simple sounding advice, except when I tried to make a sound like nnnooooo it came out more like sure, I’d be happy to take complete control of that ministry and, oh, can I offer to bring an extra dish to the potluck next week?

After ending up bringing more stress to everyone’s lives by repeatedly getting myself overcommitted with far more responsibilities than I can realistically handle, I sought advice from other women I know who struggle with this. I ended up getting some great tips that have really helped me. I thought I’d share in case anyone else struggles with this:

1. Open up about your situation

When you need to withdraw your involvement from an organization or decline a request that you help with a certain project, don’t feel like you just need to leave it at “no.” Open up about your struggles with frequently overcommitting yourself, and maybe even share some of the ways that trying to juggle too many balls at once has negatively impacted your life.

I’ve found this advice to be surprisingly effective at breaking through tension. I was recently asked to spearhead a major web project for a local Christian group. It was a great cause, and they were adamant that they needed my help; yet the scope of the project was way more than I could handle. At first it was a little tense when I had to tell the director that there’s no way I could take on such a project in this phase of life. But when I opened up to her about my struggles with chronically overcommitting myself and the negative impact it had had on my spiritual life and my family, she ended up gushing that she had the exact same problem. We were both so relieved to talk to someone who could relate, and there was zero tension at the end of the conversation.

2. Offer to help find someone else (with limits)

This can be a little bit dangerous for people like me, since “I’ll help you find someone else” can often lead into “please go ahead and let me be the de facto organizer of this project.” One suggestion I’ve found helpful in this area is to set a limit for how much time you can spend trying to find someone else, e.g. “I can’t take on this responsibility right now, but I could spend two or three hours this week calling around to see if anyone else might be available.” That way you can still offer to lend a hand, but are upfront about what sort of time commitment you can make in that area.

3. Watch out for pride

A lot of times when I find myself agonizing over having to decline involvement in some organization, when I take a close look at what motivates my angst, I see that it’s two main things: being prideful and controlling. It goes back to that whole inability to delegate thing that I was talking about in my previous post: it’s easy for me to slide into the ridiculous mentality that I know how to do the job the “best” or “right” way, and therefore I am the only person on the face of the planet who should even attempt it.

Once when I was agonizing about telling a family member I didn’t have time to do a website for his business, a friend counseled me to remember that maybe — just maybe — the fabric of the universe wouldn’t tear apart if I wasn’t involved in this project. I had to laugh. Sure enough, I had once again let my prideful and controlling tendencies take over, and hadn’t even considered that this family member is a skilled businessman who is more than capable of dealing with a change in plans. Sure enough, he quickly found someone else and had a fantastic website in just a few weeks.

4. Trust God

This is by far the best advice I’ve heard on this topic. There are two sub-points here:

  1. Trust that if you are meant to be involved in this project, God will help you do it in peace. Some of the most important advice I’ve heard in recent memory is that God would never call us to something that would detract from our primary vocations. For example, if you’re a wife and a mother, he would never call you to something that would mean neglecting your marriage or your children. Sometimes, as I’ve recently found, God sometimes does seem to miraculously give us extra time or mental bandwidth to do things peacefully that would seem to be impossible given our state in life — and that’s a good indicator that we’re meant to do those things. But if you find that you continue to feel anxious and stressed about taking on this new responsibility, that even after turning to prayer it’s a drain on you and takes too much time and/or mental energy out of your life and away from your family, then you can safely assume that you’re simply not meant to pursue this path and this time.
  2. Trust that if God intends for this project or organization to succeed, he will guide it. Trust that he will open the right doors and lead the people in charge to the right resources to make it happen if it’s meant to happen. If it doesn’t succeed, it’s highly unlikely that it’s only because you weren’t involved.

Anyway, those are a few tips that have been a great help to me. Anyone else have any tips?

19 Comments

  1. Hairline Fracture

    That is really great advice– especially the part about remembering that God doesn’t want us take too much energy away from our primary vocations.

    One more tip: I used to say yes before I’d had a chance to think about it (I was raised to be a pleaser, but that’s another story.) The therapist I was seeing suggested that I put a sticky note by the phone that said, “Let me think about it and call you back.”

    After I thought about it and talked to my husband, I’d call back (sometimes with notes written down!) to say “That’s not going to work with my schedule” or whatever answer I had decided to use.

  2. Jaime (ChaseNKids)

    This was an amazing post and something I really needed to read.

    I love your blog as it is so refreshing to read, uplifting entries from a sister in Christ.

    ~Jaime
    http://www.ChaseNKids.com

  3. Veronica Mitchell

    st reminded me of one of my husband’s favorite quotes (I don’t remember who said it first):

    “The cemetery is full of indispensable men.”

  4. Hope

    I learned to say to people that I’d get back to them. Otherwise there was this thing that happened…my mouth said yes and my heart said no. I also had to see that wanting to say yes was tied to wanting people to like me. And really, what other people think of me is none of my business.

    Baby steps. Take one baby step by saying no to someone and see how you survive it and it gets easier. People usually think first of the person who always says yes. They don’t bug the people with clear boundaries in place. That’s been my experience anyway on both sides. Being the one who couldn’t say no and being the one who had to think of someone to ask who couldn’t say no.

  5. Erin K.

    Great advice! My husband and I used to be super involved at our church. When we were engaged, I was the church administrator and he was in charge of several ministries. Just before we got married I quit working at the church because we firmly believed that we could not start our marriage on the right foot while being so wrapped up in church stuff.

    Our responsibilities changed, but we were still very involved. When our daughter was born we stepped out of everything. We were burned out and we knew that if we simply tried to scale back we would, little by little, inch back into doing just as much (if not more) than we were before. Like you mentioned, we had to let go of pride and believe that the ministries would carry on without us. We also had complete peace about it. Our pastors were very understanding, and it has been the best thing for us.

    One tip that may or may not work for some people: get a day planner and schedule EVERYTHING. This doesn’t mean that you have to schedule every little detail because that would be really frustrating, especially for a stay at home mom with little kids who can cause schedules to change at a moment’s notice. However, you can approximate what time you need to take care of things at home, run errands, be involved in activities outside the home, and what time you have left over as free time to help others.

    Then, if someone asks you to coordinate crafts for the MOPS group next Tuesday, you can consult your schedule and honestly say that you already have something going on. Maybe you have Tuesday mornings, from 8am to 11am, blocked out for doing laundry and cleaning bathrooms. The person you say “no” to doesn’t need to know that they are being turned down so you can spend quality time folding socks and scrubbing toilets. The point is to be realistic about what time you have, and to establish boundaries to protect your priorities.

    Another point in doing this is to realize that for every time you say “yes” to a new activity, you must say “no” to something currently in your schedule. In the example above, saying yes to helping with MOPS would mean saying no to clean clothes and clean bathroom. Well, more likely, it would mean that you would tell yourself that you could do laundry and cleaning some other time during the week, which would cut into another activity, such as going to the library with your kids. So often, things that are important (but aren’t urgent) get shoved out of the way so you can take care of things that are urgent (but not necessarily important).

    Tonight I did something that was seemingly unimportant. But in reality, it is the most important type of activity. I sat on my front steps with my husband and daughter. We ate ice cream bars. We looked at ants. We said hi to the doggy and the lady who walked by. We walked down the street to say hi to the neighbors.

    I could never have done that if I was still over-committed at the church.

    Sorry to ramble on so much. It’s just that this is one thing I am very passionate about. This year I’ve seen two marriages in my church enter very rocky territory, and in both cases the couples were super involved in church ministries. I hate seeing people slowly sacrafice their family relationships for the sake of “church”.

    I can’t wait to see what advice everyone else has to share. Thanks for once again having a post that gives such great food for thought!

  6. Shannon

    As someone who has to roust the volunteers for one project or another, I always make a point of telling them, “One of your options is to say ‘no.’ It’s a perfectly good answer. Think about this project. Think about your life and what’s going on in it. Let’s talk in a couple of days.”

    I find it a wonderful opportunity to help someone through a discernment process, even in a minor way. Many people have told me they appreciate the freedom that I offer them.

    And I get volunteers who actually think about their decision and don’t feel pushed into adding one more thing to a busy schedule.

    Now if I could just find someone to remind me to gift myself that way… sigh

  7. Dustmite

    My wife has the same problem, like your husband I do not find this problem impacts me to the same degree as it does my wife. But, one of the things I have done when asked to do something I am uncomfortable with in church (usually up front) I simply explain that I am retired (form church jobs – keep in mind I am 35). This usually gets some amusing responses and also usually works…especially if I come off all sincere! LOL.

  8. Ginkgo100

    When I was sick and pregnant, learning and respecting my limits became even more important. There were so many fun-sounding volunteer opportunities at our church at that time (like stained-glass making) that I wanted to get involved with — but I realized that it was just not realistic to do them all.

    For me, what’s even harder than saying no is asking for help when I need it. I always feel so, so guilty for prevailing on people, even when they have offered to help whenever I need it. I’d love to see a post from you on accepting help!

  9. Anonymous

    Well, who am I to add, but I will anyway. My husband tells me I am too simplistic in my thinking, but I wonder whether it’s really a matter of priorities. As mothers, our primary responsibility is the raising of the next generation. What could possibly be more important than that? And more taxing in all aspects? It is more than a full-time job in itself, and I know you’re at least considering home schooling, which will make it two jobs.

    Why would one want to shortchange his/her primary responsibility in life? Would your husband want to shortchange his responsibility to bring home the bacon? From what you’ve said about him, of course not. The children we are responsible for are far more important than that.

    I never have trouble saying “no” and the main reason is that I look at everything in light of my primary responsibility — at this season of my life, that’s raising and home schooling my children. Everything else in the world pales before that. My husband says I’m simplistic and that I sound harsh. Well, I sure don’t mean it to be harsh, but just real. And I don’t see why my approach is simplistic — I just see it as very clear.

    Our unfortuate secular popular culture lionizes those who over-commit. I remember a commercial I heard back in the 80’s that said something like “it’s the 80’s, we’re doing 3 things at once.” That was before ubiquitous cell phones and text messaging. It’s worse now. We have to resist being sucked into that culture. Our worth does not come from being “productive” or from being respected or admired. It comes from Christ alone, and on the Last Day, he will not be asking us about any web projects, no matter how worthy. He’ll be asking us about the precious souls he put into our care. That keeps things real clear (or simplistic) in my mind. Well, that’s my 2 cents anyway.

  10. Sandy

    The thing that’s helped me most is to tell anyone who asks me for a commitment that I have to talk about it with my husband. I admit to the asker that I am not very good at knowing when I’m overcommiting myself but that over the years I’ve learned to trust my husband’s judgment in such matters. Usually, the people who are asking things of me (people from church, homeschool group or family) understand and appreciate my candor and my desire to honor my husband and family by not overcommiting my time to other things at their expense.

    I’ve also learned to offer to do things that I know I can do instead of the things they are asking that I’m afraid I can’t. (i.e. offer to make calls or email from home rather than commit to a meeting at church 44 miles from home). Just the other day I was telling my daughter about such an offer and she said, “you really feel guilty saying no so you offer something else instead”. She’s absolutely right!

    again, a post I to which I completely relate!

    Blessings,

  11. eally

    I used to overload myself as well. My family life suffered…my husband would get angry because I was always too busy and when I thought I was doing things “for” my kids I realized my kids weren’t actually around but I was still doing the work (chairperson of little leagues, girl scouts, etc.) I heard a sermon one time based on the very familiar passage found in Psalms 100.

    “Serve the Lord with gladness…” Psalms 100:2

    Now when I am asked to do something I ask myself…”am I doing this with a servant’s heart for the Lord because I want to? Will I be doing it with gladness? Or am I doing this out of obligation or because I’m afraid I will hurt somebody’s feelings by saying no?” If the answer is I’m doing it out of obligation then I say no…and I remember Psalms 100:2 and I thank God for reminding me of His word. I can also trust that once I’ve said no, then the path has been cleared for someone better, more suited for the job to enter in to the picture. Have a truly blessed day!

  12. Sandy

    stopping back in to say thanks for this timely post. Just today, after commenting here, I struggled to say no to something. I knew my husband didn’t want me to commit to it but I hated to tell the person no. Thankfully, your post came to mind and I realized the only reason I didn’t want to say no was pride and wanting to please the person who asked. At the expense of peace in my household? Thanks again for posting on this subject today.

  13. Angela

    I found your blog from reading another, and I am so glad I did! This advice was perfect for me today, and I think God wanted me to see it – he does have his hand in everything!

    Your blog is great – I have enjoyed reading and will be back again! Thanks for sharing your beautiful story…

  14. The (Almost) Amazing Mammarino

    Excellent post. I was once involved in way too many ministries at church (and had been doing most of them for 11 years straight). One of them was leading an interpretive movement group for children, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but the time it took was negatively impacting my family. At one point, I remember being obsessed with finishing some choreography because it HAD to get done (and couldn’t be delegated) while my toddler lay listless beside me with a low grade fever. That was the last straw. I tried hard to find someone to take over this ministry, but no one would. One of the parents was really trying to guilt trip me. (“Oh, if YOU’RE not the teacher, my little Madison won’t want to be in it, and this is the ONLY activity at church she likes . . .”) The ministry ended up dissolving when I stepped down. I had not a shred of guilt. Here’s why:

    – This was a large church with PLENTY of other ministry opportunities for kids.

    – Yes, many were blessed through this ministry, but the church didn’t fall apart after the ministry dissolved. Other ministries later arose to take its place.

    – There are clear limits to how much I can handle. (I have ADD.) I had clearly exceeded those limits. I should never expect to do as much as someone else because God equipped them differently.

    – I realized that there is a season for everything. (Ecclesiastes 3:1) In this season of life, God has given me the responsibility to care for my family. In other seasons of life (when my kids are older, etc.) I will be able to take on additional responsibilities. In other words, I was not “giving up” a ministry; I was merely focusing on a different one. My FAMILY is my ministry.

    Raising children to glorify God and serve Him is important, and it’s no easy task. I need to concentrate and do my best!

    I truly enjoy your blog. Blessings to you!

  15. The (Almost) Amazing Mammarino

    Oh, I forgot to mention:

    Last year we moved to a different state. Our calendar was wiped clean, of course, and I was VERY choosy about what activities, etc. we would become involved in. Also, since we were still paying for the old house in KY, financially we couldn’t do everything we did before.

    As a result, our family has been INCREDIBLY blessed this year. I am more patient because I am not stressed with all the activities. My children are more creative because they have more free time to play and use their imagination. We simply ENJOY life, not just survive from week to week!

    I could go on and on. Never will I go back to that frenetic pace again!

  16. Catholic Bibliophagist

    It’s not always a good idea to “open up about your situation.” What often happens is that the other person starts to contest your reasons or to persuade you you really can do what they’re asking.

    So if I want to say no, I tend to follow Miss Manner’s suggestion: “I’m so sorry, but I just can’t.” If people ask why not, I reply, “Because I just can’t right now.” Repeat as long as necessary. (But if a person finds it hard to say no, perhaps this is not easy to do.)

  17. Charity Grace

    A couple things. One, like others have said, postpone giving and answer. After overcommiting one too many times I learned my lesson. I (virually) always say, “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” That gives me time to evaluate whether or not I can really handle it and to check my schedule as well as my husband’s.

    If it’s more than I can take on, I simply say, “I’m sorry, I have another commitment on that night.” I used to feel compelled to explain in detail why I couldn’t say yes, but I realized that some people just aren’t going to understand that I am buried under a laundry mountain or my baby is grumpy and insecure from being away from home too many days this week. Family time or cleaning my house may be the other commitment I’m referring too–but it’s a term satisfies most people without being dishonest.

  18. wendybirde

    Hi Jennifer,

    I have been so moved by your journey in using the Liturgy of Hours, and your embracing “hard stops”. I have shared some highlights on my blog, hope that’s okay. Truly, you have inspired..

    Peaceful week to you : ) Wendy

  19. Becca

    I found you through Shannon.

    I am learning to say no. I have to have limits, or I am not good to anyone, let alone myself. I have to do only what my heart truly leads me to these days. And listen more, and talk less. My heart is steering me where it needs me. Does that even make sense? I hope so.

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