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

March 2, 2011 | Uncategorized | 29 comments

Given our great discussion last week about not saying yes out of fear, I thought this might be a fun post to re-run since these tips have really helped me in that department. It was originally published on June 2, 2008.

A few months ago I told my husband that I was stressed because I’d been asked to get involved in an organization at our parish. “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 said.

I tried this oh-so-simple sounding advice, except when I tried to make that nnnooooo sound, it came out more like Sure, would you like for me to be Director of the organization, or just the Co-Chair and Treasurer? 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 undertake 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. She didn’t understand the amount of work the project would have meant for me, and seemed to take my “no” as an indicator that I didn’t care enough about their cause. 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’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:

A) 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 on this subject is from my spiritual director. She pointed out that our primary vocations are the main way God wants us to serve others, and therefore he would never call us to something that would detract from our work in that department. 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, just as he would never call a husband and father to a career path that meant he hardly saw his family, or call a pastor to some project that made him feel resentful of his work at his parish.

Sometimes  God does 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 a large amount of time and/or mental energy away from your primary vocation, then you can safely assume that you’re simply not meant to pursue this path and this time.

B) 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?

29 Comments

  1. Leila

    I love this. I mean, I really love this.

    The one thing I have been doing lately is talking of charisms. I explain that God gave me certain gifts and when I use those, all goes well. When I try to hard to get involved in things which are not my gifts/charisms, things go wrong. For example, I don’t cook. It stresses me out in ways which are not pretty. So, while everyone else is cooking meals for the new mom at the parish, I am the one setting up the meal schedule on FoodTidings! A win-win!

    People seem to understand a self-deprecating apology and explanation by analogy: “You know how some people find cooking or crafting relaxing and energizing? Well, that’s how I feel about writing and blogging!” (Because I’d rather put pins in my eyes than cook a big meal or do some fun craft project.)

    Wait, can you tell that I don’t like to cook or do crafts?

  2. Janet

    This is an extremely important topic to discuss, especially for mothers.

    i am not a Mom, but I know so many who are stressed out beyond belief because they believe that is what is required of a good, Christian Mom. They insist that it is their duty to single-handedly run the world around them and that if they don’t, well it’s not “what Jesus wants”. I have actually heard those words.

    I might not be a Mom, but I know the difference between being a caring and effective wife and mother and one who is overworked, overstressed and becoming increasingly resentful of all she has to do.

    I can’t say much because I am reminded about how “you just don’t understand because you don’t have kids” so I really appreciate your thoughts on this, Jennifer. I hope this post helps some women to say “No”.

  3. Craig

    I must admit I’m much more of your husband’s mind on this one.

    Perhaps it will help to use the gentler Miss Manners-approved version, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’d love to, but I just can’t.” The proper response to any follow-ups, as under your point 1, is “Because it’s just impossible.”

    • Roz

      That’s exactly what I was going to say. Miss Manners began my education about appropriate boundaries. We actually don’t owe anyone an explanation, though it is loving to express understanding while we decline.

      I believe Christians, especially women, are prone to believe that we owe people service unless there is a compelling reason not to. Perhaps that’s because we’re unclear about God’s priorities for our own lives, I don’t know. But that feeling of a hand in the small of your back pushing you toward things is not an indication of God’s guidance. It’s an indication that we’re about to do something to serve our own needs, even if it’s a need to be seen as generous and selfless.

      So I vote for a warm version of a simple “no, sorry”. Perhaps, “I wish I were in a position to help, but I’m afraid it won’t work. God bless you.”

      True faith in God’s sovereignty is faith that he will meet all needs. Humility is realizing that he doesn’t need us in order to do that.

      • Roz

        P.S. If you’re not sure you can tell right away whether something is good to do, you can try what a friend of mine does. He always, without fail, responds to requests with “Thanks for asking me. Let me think about it and get back to you.”

        The trick is, you actually have to get back to them. 🙂

  4. Lacey R

    I have to admit I’m with Craig on this one too. People don’t need to know your business and the reasons behind why you are saying no to something (especially nosy people who try to guilt you into accepting a task…we’ve all come across those people!) but I do think it depends on who the person is you are telling “no” to….sometimes a little explanation is fine.

  5. Kelly

    Mental Bandwidth! perfect.

  6. DorkusAmongUs

    Why do we women put so much stress on ourselves, as if mothering/wifing isn’t stressful in its own ways already? We figure we also have to save the world through volunteering.

    I think life is more peaceful when we can help out in little ways here and there. “Little” is the key word for me. I won’t be the one offering to lead or direct a project these days, as my plate is full already, as yours, Jennifer.

    I don’t personally have the talent to lead a project or ministry at this point, and I find that when I did in the past, I did it for as long as it bore fruit and then I realized God was probably asking me to pass it along to someone else.

    Bowing out gracefully isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Women all understand that daily life is busy enough and most understand if we have to say no, esp to larger projects or ministries.

    Little things here and there, yeah, sure. If it doesn’t cause a frantic reaction in my household…by me, I mean.

  7. Denise

    “She pointed out that our primary vocations are the main way God wants us to serve others, and therefore he would never call us to something that would detract from our work in that department.”

    Bingo. Thank you so much for (once again) articulating so well what I need to remember.

    I admit, my first reaction to #1 is what a couple of commentors stated above, especially as I’m very private and know myself to be rather severely self-judgemental.

    On the other hand, we are all companions on the journey. Yes, no doubt many of those who request/demand our help are doing it for partially selfish reasons (it’s easy for them to ask us vs. someone else; accepting our “no” means more work for them; they also have the inward-looking opinion of, “The world will end if my organization, etc. doesn’t get off the ground!!”). But it sounded like Jennifer’s open response in her example led this rather forceful person into a better place, perhaps one where she is more open to Jesus.

    I suppose I’d always start with the short and sweet NO, try to repeat it gently, and go on from there if someone wasn’t accepting it well. And a very few simply won’t except it well, and that’s no reflection on me.

  8. Claire

    After similar overstressing myself, and attending a time-management talk for moms with young children, I put a “Just say ‘no’ (with a smile)” sign beside my telephone (pre-cordless days). What made the difference? Well, the speaker had commented that a first “no” can easily be changed to “yes, I can do …, if you still need someone” if subsequent prayer and discernment showed that the request was, not only “doable,” but also something God seemed to want me to do. I didn’t need to explain my need for time to consider, or to say “no” and mean it. I had the sign there for several months, allowing the new process to become second-nature. I now often ask when an answer is needed and promise to get back by then. And then, I pray, pray, pray! Oh, and talk to my husband and a few trusted friends if there’s time and the request is significant.

  9. Regina

    I’ve always been very selfish with my time. I like dinner at 6. I like to start making it at 5. I like to watch re-runs with my husband at night. I deeply resent any intrusions. So when I’m asked to do something for the parish or for the Women’s Center or for the homeschool group, my gut reaction is “Nope, too busy.” I think I’ve inherted this trait from a woman in my lineage who shall remain nameless, but who will fret all day over a hair appointment and won’t even take phone calls till it’s past. I’m working on stretching myself in this area. But it literally makes me ill to have something looming at the end of the day. And it literally destroys my whole day when I have a doing in the morning. I’m less liable to overcommit than to be a miser with my time. There’s a great letter in Lewis’s Screwtape letters about me. It’s all about the human misconception that “My Time Is My Own.”

    • Catherine

      Thank you for saying this! I’m not alone!!!

      I pretty much do nothing. I’m a SAHM with a toddler, and we only leave the house for grocery shopping, and maybe playing at the park.

      Half the time I wish I had more to do, but when I commit to something (like a playdate), I often get nervous and back out the day before.

      For some reason I find it so stressful to go to bed at night thinking we have to be somewhere the next day. And yes, I spend the whole day (sometimes the whole week) waiting for the event to arrive, and making sure meals are at the right time, so naps can be at the right time, so we will leave at the right time, and get there at the right time. LOL

      It’s self perpetuating, because the more you say no, the less people ask you to do things.

  10. Leah @ Unequally Yoked

    I’m terrible about this, especially because I’m so impatient, so I’d always rather take over a group than watch it flounder, even briefly. Of course, when I do that, I’m really preventing other people in the group from getting the chance to be organizers and leaders, just because I was too impatient to let them get a handle on things.

    Mind you, knowing this is a problem hasn’t helped me avoid it much.

    • Headless Mom

      I agree with the ‘not wanting it to flounder’ thing. Similarly, something that a care group member once said to me stuck. “What if your taking on too much means depriving someone else of using their calling and spiritual gifts?”

      Just another thing to think about when deciding when/if to say no.

      • Mary @ A Simple Twist of Faith

        I think Headless Mom has a great point. I recently had to say no to something, and I did open up for the situation. Frankly, I think I did the explaining more for myself than the group.

  11. Kimberly

    I love point 4A-so great!

  12. klh57

    Okay, I have to admit that I am horrible about “just say no”. There must be a neon sign flashing on my forehead that says “stupid” or “sucker”. I have been asked to do so much over the years and it is extremely stressful for me to say no – I guess because I feel like I am letting someone down. Anyway, my stepfather, who was an Episcopal priest, once told me that he had a limit of three – he wouldn’t allow any of the church volunteers commit to more than three activities/roles within the parish community (and that could extend to major commitments within the local community). So, when I was a lector, CCD teacher, confirmation sponsor, cropwalk sponsor, and FISH board member – in addition to working full-time and trying to be a good mom – he told me that I was over-extended and needed to give something up. Even said that my priest should never have put so much on my shoulders….So, think of the rule of three!

  13. Teresa

    Whenever I’m face with the decision of wanting to say yes when I should say no, I try to remember all of the other things I’m in “charge” of already. Family, prayer life, pets,committees, work, etc… It helps me to remember these things because then I remember that I’m only human and capable of doing only so much. If I put to much pressure or work on myself then these other responsibilities will suffer, and I’ll be unable to do a good job in any of them (which is pretty important to me). I figure if God really wants me to work on a new project/group/committee then He WILL find a way for me to get on board with it. So if my first response is a no and that’s how it stays then I know I made the right choice. 🙂

  14. Abigail Benjamin

    OOHH! I’ve learned the hard way that a Mom with very young kids in her home should pretty much say NO to everything.

    This is an very intensive time in my vocation. Neither the baby in my womb, nor the little toddler is going to write me a memo explaining how my calm maternal presence is needed to set up a healthy emotional foundation for their future life. I don’t get thank you notes yet from their future spouses or the Mother Superiors of their religious houses.

    I believe I help my parish family best by my constant prayers and sacrifices made duringmy daily life. I trust the Lord to put “extra” little acts of charity in my path to help others. Even during my daughter’s intensive NICU stay, Jesus handed me many acts of charity to do for people outside my family.. So far not a single task has involved chairing a parish committee assignment (by far, my actual favorite work!)

  15. Amy

    Jennifer, this really hit home for me. Actually I just wrote a post about the same thing on my blog. It’s hard, isn’t it? For me, at least, it also has something (a lot of something) to do with appearances. I feel a little sense of shame if someone comes to my door and I’m not dressed or my livingroom isn’t really ‘vistor ready’ and the same goes for my life in general. I want it to look full and busy, perhaps because the people I know percieve motherhood as something that lasts a set period and then evolves into something else. I don’t feel that way anymore, though, I believe my domestic life is my vocation, for as long as God will have me here. And that’s what I have to keep reminding myself, that I can’t impress Jesus with my activities and no one else’s opinion matters.

  16. Erin

    Jennifer

    I thought alot about your post since I read it yesterday, was even forming my thoughts in my sleep. lol.

    I once had a serious problem saying ‘No’. Then I read a book called Boundaries by Henry Townsend. I found the best way to deal with my problem was to say, “let me think about it and I’ll get back to you’. Often I would think it a great idea and be carried away and overcommit or I felt intense pressure from a friend to agree, despite knowing it wasn’t in my families best interest. In the interim I found it best to ask my husband’s advice (why do we so often ask him last?) Knowing me, my limits, he always helped me keep on track; my primary vocation was as a wife and mother. Taking this extra time to think helped without pressure.

    To be honest I don’t give explanations, I have a friend who saw my explanations as a challenge to shoot down my reasons, to try to convince me to still do what she wanted.

  17. Erin

    Jennifer

    I thought alot about your post since I read it yesterday, was even forming my thoughts in my sleep. lol.

    I once had a serious problem saying ‘No’. Then I read a book called Boundaries by Henry Townsend. I found the best way to deal with my problem was to say, “let me think about it and I’ll get back to you’. Often I would think it a great idea and be carried away and overcommit or I felt intense pressure from a friend to agree, despite knowing it wasn’t in my families best interest. In the interim I found it best to ask my husband’s advice (why do we so often ask him last?) Knowing me, my limits, he always helped me keep on track; my primary vocation was as a wife and mother. Taking this extra time to think helped without pressure.

    To be honest I don’t give explanations, I have a friend who saw my explanations as a challenge to shoot down my reasons, to try to convince me to still do what she wanted.

  18. Kris, in New England

    “…seemed to take my “no” as an indicator that I didn’t care enough about their cause.”

    I am with so many others here in the belief that we don’t owe an explanation about our situations to anyone. The statement above is about THEIR issues, not yours. If they want to make that assumption, then you can’t do anything to change it; it’s how they would prefer to think.

    As someone in RCIA I am very eager to start giving my time to my Parish. I want to be part of … everything. I am not a mom, just a very busy professional woman with a husband and a full life. I need to remind myself all the time to set boundaries on what I am willing to commit to.

    So far it’s working and no one thinks less of me for it. Our lives are our own and we are the only ones who truly know what we can take on and what we can’t. Anyone that passes judgment on that is, well, not living the Christian ideal.

  19. Elizabeth

    I’m sending this to my mom, STAT.

  20. Julianne

    Thank you so much for sharing this post and your previous post on the same subject. I have been slowly working through the process of listening to the still, small voice and letting that guide me in my “yes” and my “no” and it really does bring peace and joy to my life, where once I was stressed and overcommitted.

    I’ve also learned to do one or two committees at a time, and when I’m asked to do more, I say, “Maybe when my commitment is over” so I’m replacing one committee with another and not adding another one. This boundary line has helped, and people seem to accept it quite readily as a reason. If you are firm with your priorities and boundaries, others will respect it. The problem is that I was never firm with mine before, so no one respected them. Great post!

  21. Paula H.

    After reading this post, I stuck a post-it on my computer reiterating “To say no is to protect what you’ve said YES to.”

    I am never taking that post-it down.

    I am sending a letter to the CWL tomorrow resigning the position I never should have taken in the first place. I am the mother of a 4 year old handfull of a girl and since we can’t have any more children, she’s my only shot. We are beginning homeschooling this year, I’m the president of our area’s pro-life group and on the executive with the local Toastmasters. I am quite happy doing these three things. I feel they give me a chance to persue my passions and spread my wings. I don’t know why I keep saying “YES” to stuff I know I shouldn’t do! Actually I do, but it’s irrelevant.
    Just know Jennifer, that this post has affected me in a very positive way and my daughter will reap the rewards. We all will. God bless!

  22. Andrew

    I’m with the guys, just say no and get it over with. The person you say no to will still be your friend. Remember to make it a point to be friendly with them at a later date.

    Besides if they are starting a new ministry or apostolate, then they need to get used to hearing “no” from a lot of people, even people they are close to. That’s how ministry works. A true leader will not be disappointed when people don’t get on board, but will instead be grateful that God is giving them clear guidance on who should and should not be involved in their work.

  23. whimsy

    The ladies’ group at our parish hosts a fun “Mom’s night out” about every quarter. Some of them have looked really tempting, but I really suspect they are recruiting tools and so I avoid them. 🙁

  24. Expert Dating

    A true leader will not be disappointed when people don’t get on board, but will instead be grateful that God is giving them clear guidance on who should and should not be involved in their work.We are beginning homeschooling this year, I’m the president of our area’s pro-life group and on the executive with the local Toastmasters.

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