We have all over-committed at one time or another. It can happen by accident, of course. However, if you notice your automatic answer is generally “yes,” it might be time to reevaluate your resources before taking on any further commitments. Accurately assessing what you are able to give can allow you to do so generously and with your whole heart. However, giving too much can lead to burnout and resentment.
For my family, last September was full of opportunities for joining committees, activities, and groups. I tried to be mindful of my other commitments while I signed up to volunteer. At orientation night for my son’s first grade class, I happily signed up to work with a team of parents to organize a Halloween party. I have done this in the past and have found it a fun way to offer support to the teacher and be involved on a day special to my child. However, the very next day, before school had even started, I received a message with a rather anxious tone from the parent that agreed to be the party “coordinator.” She had already created an itinerary complete with numerous references to Pinterest. The messages started to pour in at a pace of about 10-15 per day. I joked a bit with my husband about it at first. I thought that if we agreed to meet to solidify the plans, that the messages would certainly slow down. Our party planning group met during the second week of school to plan an hour long party that would occur at the end of October. It seemed that we had covered the most pertinent details and each had agreed to help with certain tasks.
To my dismay, the very next day the messages started up again. I was doing my best to keep up with the flow of questions, requests for opinions and validation. But after a while, I started to dread the notification sound on my phone. Responding to the barrage of requests was interfering with the time I had set aside to complete some projects around the house during a limited amount of time. With some hesitation, I let the group know that I couldn’t keep up with the frequency of communication and noted my availability to respond to party-related planning messages on Mondays. To my surprise, the other group members responded with thumbs up emoticons. Slowly, the pace of the messages subsided. While it was uncomfortable at first, it was a relief to have stated more clearly what I could offer to the group.
If you find yourself in situations where you are saying “yes” through clenched teeth and a forced smile, here are some strategies for setting limits with others:
1. When someone directly asks for your commitment, buy some time to make a decision:
Do not respond immediately. Say something like, “I need some time to consider that, can I get back to you on that by_______?”
Do I have this ________(time, energy, money etc.) available to give?
How will this impact _______(me, my family, other commitments I’ve made, etc.) if I agree to this?
Is this in alignment with any personal goals/values that I have identified (i.e. setting aside time for exercise, meditation, study, sleep, family time, saving money, important project/goal etc.)?
Why would I say “yes” to this request?
How will I feel about this decision tomorrow, in a week, a month, or a year?
Am I being honest with myself and others?
Is there something else that I could offer that would be a better fit for me?
3. Craft the response:
Be honest, considerate, and concise. Avoiding the issue/person or making up a reason that you think would be acceptable is likely to cause more stress and anxiety down the road. If you are straight forward, you won’t have to worry about keeping your story straight in the future. If you are dealing with someone that historically does not accept “no” for an answer, be prepared to stand your ground by rehearsing a phrase that summarizes what you have already stated and an exit strategy or a change of topic.
4. Reflect and celebrate:
Setting limits can be hard (I know this firsthand as a recovering people-pleaser), but doing so can be one of the greatest gifts you learn to give to yourself. I found a great deal of wisdom regarding this topic in the book “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are,” by Brene Brown. Brown talks about limit-setting as it relates to authenticity, vulnerability, and what she coins “wholehearted living”. It really is a great read. You may also be familiar with her well-known TED Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.
After you have responded to the request, reflect on how you have reaffirmed your commitment to any personal goals or values. If you are able to manage your resources (time, energy, money, etc.), you will be better able to enjoy the activities/commitments that you have thoughtfully selected. You are in control rather than feeling controlled and with all the time you have left over, maybe you can do something nice for yourself or with someone you love!
Jenny M., MA, joined Empathia in 2013 and is one of our Performance Specialists; her previous position here was as an EAP Counselor. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Counseling with an emphasis in School Counseling. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a School Counselor with children ranging in age from 4-18 years old. Jenny enjoys photography, travel, hiking, reading, adventures with her sons, and spending time with her family.