Pure As the Driven Slush: Heather Corinna's Journal and Diary, Online since 1999
May 23rd, 2010

While so much of my work involves my giving other people advice, I’m writing today to ask all of you for some for myself.

While the answers and working it out are obviously going to be complex, the question itself is pretty simple.  How do any of you both accept and express your limits to others, especially people you don’t know?

I’m not talking about sexually, but in the rest of life.  Over the last year, and certainly the last few months, it’s become clearer and clearer to me that I’m not very good at this.  I’m actually great at it sexually or when it comes to my close personal relationships.  But when it comes to work-stuff, and to people who I don’t know very well (including people who may feel they know me, but who I don’t feel I know)?  I kind of suck at it. Okay, so I really suck at it.
I am aware that one of the big hurdles is that I have done and do so much that I know that can give the impression I’m either superhuman, or just always capable of doing a million things at once.  I also know that a lot of people don’t realize — how could they, really — how many people at a given time will usually be asking/wanting things of me at any given time.  To boot, when it’s about work, I find it really hard to figure out who to be professional yet still state limits that usually have something to do with having too much work on my plate, but also have to do with my health and the limitations it can impose, which is very personal.  Same goes for the financial limitations I have, also personal.  I mean, “I’m sick, broke and stretched to my limit,” is just not a very professional answer, even though that’s often the truth of things.

For example, right now, the hard truth is that unless I’m being compensated very well for anything work-wise, I really, really should say no.  Same goes for my needing to do anything work-wise which requires a lot of time and energy for any kind of setup or prep, other than things in which I can just bring my existing skills and resources to the table.  Between now and a few weeks after the upcoming move, I just need to not take ANYTHING extra on at all, because if I do, I just don’t know how it will get done in the midst of everything else.  Ideally, I’d be able to go a month before even answering any email, because the backlog is so great, and I feel so overwhelmed by how many folks want or need something from me.

Lastly, I’ve little doubt that consciously and unconsciously, my own dislike of some of my many limits probably comes across in some of these exchanges, which I’m sure doesn’t help. Any tone from me that sounds apologetic about my limits…well, I guess I feel like it only seems to make things worse.  Too often lately, I find myself just not responding to a lot of people sometimes, too, because a) even taking the time to respond to everyone takes up a lot of time and energy I don’t have, b) it makes me feel crappy to have to constantly explain that I can’t do everything, and c) a lot of people seem to take it really personally, a response I’m also really bad at dealing with, and tend to easily feel guilty about.

So, are you awesome at this?  What works for you in doing this?  If you sucked at it in the past, what was your process like in getting better at it?  If you could just gab at me about it, I’d be so grateful.  Thanks!

13 comments so far

  1. Mark W. "Extra Crispy" Schumann Says:

    I am not awesome at this, but your position reminds me of an email I sent a long time ago to a client who was trying really hard to avoid paying for some work I’d already done while asking for more.

    “I’m sorry, Bob,” I wrote, “but I’m afraid that would be unethical. It’s not fair to my paying clients.”

    Long story short, people who try to get something for nothing from you aren’t just ripping you off–they’re depriving the people who do appreciate your help and are willing to pay for it.

  2. Jess Says:

    I have two phrases that I use in these situations: “I wish I could” and “I’m not available.” No matter what your actual reasons are for turning down the request, those two phrases are both truthful and vague - genuine without getting into too much detail. You DO wish you could do everything for everybody, if not for your human limitations, but you AREN’T available for this particular request - whether it be physical, mental, or emotional unavailability.

    You might feel like you owe people more explanation, but you don’t. You might worry that they’ll press for a reason, but if they do, frankly, they’re being impolite. You can say “I have another obligation” (which might be just to yourself, to get some rest) and leave it at that.

    Say no, graciously but firmly, don’t overexplain, and let go of any queasiness that pesters you about it. I used to stink at this, but giving myself permission to say no and to be as vague as I wanted to be about the reasons has helped tremendously. You can do it!

  3. Karyn Says:

    It definitely helps to let go of feeling like you need to explain why you can’t do whatever it is someone is asking you to do. Jess had good points, and I would add to her list of useful phrases this one: “I’m sorry, but I’m just not able to handle that right now” (but without an apologetic tone). Most people won’t continue to press after a response like that - chances are, they’ve had to do the same thing themselves and will understand.

  4. Pam Says:

    For myself, and this is easier to do because I am in my mid 50s, I want to be more honest about why I can’t do everything. I talk about my husband’s illness or I say I am overloaded. I ask for help. For those people I do want to be there for, I say if I don’t reply to your email try again, because I’m overloaded and things get lost. I admit that I’m dropping balls–that is a good metaphor for me because it reminds me that the problem is that I’m juggling too much. With issues about my husband’s 99 year old aunt, who is in a nearby nursing home, I sometimes even tell myself: “If I don’t do it myself it won’t get done right, but that’s ok.”

  5. Jenny Says:

    I’ve had to practice this one a lot. I usually go with “I’m sorry, but I’m booked full right now” or “That sounds really interesting/important/worthwhile, but I don’t have any availability then.”

  6. Audacia Ray Says:

    I’m really bad at this too, but I think I’ve been improving at it, and a few things have helped me out a lot.

    The first one is just this: no is a complete sentence. You feel that you owe people more than that because you’re so invested in your work. But like some of the above commenters say, it is just rude for them to press on and ask why. That’s them, not you. People - as in, your community and the people that deeply admire the work you do - aren’t going to think you’re a jerk for saying no.

    I know money is a always tight, but one of the best things I’ve done for myself in the past year is to hire an assistant. She averages about 5 hours a week of work, and her main task is to check my email and be the first line of defense. She’s saved my ass a lot of times - left to my own devices, I will say yes to student interviews, guest blogging spots, decently paying but irrelevant writing gigs. She writes folks back and asks for more information, and often tells people no for me. For some reason I feel less terrible if I’m not the one hitting send. The next step beyond that is that she sorts my incoming mail, which makes the constant inbox flow seem less daunting. I check my email a few times a day now and it doesn’t own me the same way it did before. Email is my main guilt and danger zone though, it might be different for you. At the very least, make yourself take a timeout before answering an email asking you to do something. I find that a lot of the time, when people ask me to do something that is beyond my means right now, I say yes because I really believe in what they’re trying to do, or I want to help or support them.

    I’ve also found that asking myself, “how will saying yes to this contribute to the overall mission of my work?” and “is there someone else who I can pass this opportunity on to who would appreciate it?” is really helpful. Also, I’ve been totally avoiding conferences.

  7. Trixie Says:

    This isn’t an answer, just an observation: I think no-saying is a lot harder (for me at least) with high personal visibility on the web. I feel like people are constantly judging me whenever they see something I’m doing for myself or enjoying that isn’t work or productive or “good” in some way, like “how does Trixie have time for THAT when she doesn’t have time for THIS?!?” No one has ever said that to me, but I can FEEL them thinking it (I imagine) to the point where sometimes I don’t want to share anything that I’ve done that’s fun or relaxing or “lazy” (or a kind of work that’s not really high-priority) for fear people will be like, “ah-ha! No wonder she’s not making more money or not getting X done or whatever the fuck.” I imagine you experience some or a lot of that, too, or have people assuming that because you’ve made yourself available for ONE thing, that means you’re available for a whole lot MORE!

    Over the past year and a half going to al-anon/12-step meetings has been helping me with that and assorted issues/fears/sanity-and-time-management challenges and helping me learn to be less of an asshole to others and to myself and to be more detached. And when people like you suggest that getting up away from the computer and going to the porch to do one thing you WANT to do is a good and effective thing, that helps, and I still think of it and try to practice it. Lately I’ve been getting in the car alone with a book or the laptop and driving away from the cams and everybody to read or stare at the outside.

  8. occhiblu Says:

    “Sorry, I can’t.”

    No further explanation. A smile, but no apologetic tone.

    This requires, of course, a reasonable belief that my own limits (and my own self) are valuable. It took me quite a while to realize that I’m *not* the white knight on the horse who can ride in and save everyone single-handed, and even longer to realize that even if I *were* the white knight, that saving everyone single-handed is a fucking arrogant way of proceeding. Other people are capable of helping, and (most importantly), the people in need of help are only very rarely in such life-or-death circumstances that they can’t hold their own for a while. And even if they’re teetering on the edge, do I want to teach them that I think they’re fragile and about to break, or that I have total faith in their ability to get through the next couple of days without my constant supervision?

    I say all this as a therapist-in-training who’s had to learn to BACK WAAAAAAAAAAY OFF most of the time, because my savior complex gets triggered pretty easily. But I’m not a savior, I’m a resource, and I have to keep reminding myself that other people have the skills necessary to keep themselves alive, housed, fed, and sane most of the time. And when they’re lacking any of those skills, it’s still my job to get them to recognize their strengths and abilities to accomplish those things ASAP, so that they don’t feel dependent on me forever. Because that certainly doesn’t serve them.

    One of my supervisors used to say, “Look around. Are you dying? No? Good. Is anyone around you dying? No? Good. There’s therefore no need to panic.” (This is when I worked in a hospice, so “yes” was sometimes a reasonable answer, and obviously kicked in a different flowchart.) I sometimes work through that in my head when I get in a self-important “BUT I HAVE TO SACRIFICE MYSELF BECAUSE THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT!!!!!” place — most of the time, it’s not that important. (Not to say the work you’re doing is not important. Just that your own health and sanity is generally more important than helping prep a presentation, or whatever.)

  9. tg Says:

    When I have a hard time saying no to work or volunteer opportunities, I try to refrrame it in my mind as not a “no” but a “YES” to something else. Like Jess says, even “I have a prior commitment” and you know in your head “to say YES to this move to the island and a nap.”

    Other friends have said that saying no actually helps raise the rates for the paying work that they do, that it shows how in demand they really are. Sometimes that works for them, sometimes not. I tend to agree with the other commenters that “sorry, no” with no explanations is best, however, if you can’t pull that off, maybe something broad about how highly valued your skills and expertise are. That again hints at the need to be paid. (I too am crap about asking for money.)

    I do have that feeling that Trixie describes of being watched on the web, though. That’s why I try not to mix my personal and professional networks on social networking sites: it always seems to lead to me feeling guilty and hiding the fun stuff in my life lest a professional colleague see it and think “so that’s why she didn’t do x,” even though I know intellectually that most people understand that we all need breaks. I’m not saying that to say you should do that separation — that’s maybe not possible for you at this point — but to say that if that’s something you’re feeling, you are definitely not alone in that.

    The other thing to watch out for, which of course you know from your personal life and your advocacy work, is to watch out for when you *are* clearly saying no, and that no is not being heard. Although in the professional area, if they hear a “no” as “pay me more and I might say yes when I have time” that’s not so bad.

  10. Charlie Says:

    I don’t think anyone needs to apologize when saying no. When we say “I’m sorry. I can’t do that,” we sometimes reinforce the notion that we’re doing something wrong and we’re asking the other person to forgive us. This is especially common among folks who want to help other people- there’s so much work to do that we can feel guilty for not doing all of it. And it’s also really common among women, given the social pressure to be nice, to fix things, etc.

    A teacher of mine pointed out that it’s kind of like when they give you safety info on planes: put your oxygen mask on before helping others. If you’re constantly pouring your energy out and not getting fed, you’re going to run dry, burn out, and get bitter. You need to find ways to feed yourself, not to the point of getting greedy and overfed, but to the point where you have the energy to do the work you want to do.

    When people ask me to do things that I don’t have the space for, I tell them “I don’t have the bandwidth for that.” If I can suggest other people to ask, I will. But all I owe anyone is a clear, honest, and centered response. This has been something I’ve been practicing for years and it hasn’t been an easy process. One place to start- I suggest you reframe this as being something you’re not yet skilled at, rather than something you’re bad at or that you suck at. Judging yourself for not knowing how to do it (yet) only makes it harder to learn how to do it.

    When people take it personally, like you, I have a tendency to want to rescue them from their uncomfortable feelings or from their situation. It’s important to remember that you are not responsible for their situations or for their emotions. Doing that without losing your empathy also takes practice, and it’s totally doable.

    Lastly, Pema Chodron suggests that when you catch yourself before engaging in your habits that you want to change, rejoice because you’ve changed the pattern. And when you notice it after you’ve already done the old, habitual thing, rejoice because noticing that you’ve done the old behavior is a step towards changing future actions. Don’t beat yourself up for it- each time you notice that you’ve done it again, there’s information there that can help you shorten the time between repeating the habit and noticing it, until one day, you stop yourself BEFORE you do it. It takes a while for the momentum of the habit to slow down enough to step off of it, and each time you notice that you’ve done it, you actually slow it down a little more. I highly recommend her audio CD, “Getting Unstuck” for some amazing insight around changing difficult habits.

  11. Lena Says:

    You already have a ton of great suggestions but here’s this, too. In the classroom, I find a “Let me think about it and get back to you” to be a saving grace, especially when I’m being bombarded by a million questions at once or having a particularly demanding day. Then I take the few minutes/hours/days to decide and get back with a brief oral explanation. A quick talk with a colleague can also help when I’m feeling on the fence about something. I realize you’re in a different situation when it comes to online stuff and were probably great with these things in the classroom, but perhaps it’s something you could try (or revive or just throw out the window) in your work now. :-)

  12. Sara Says:

    I have a hard time with this too. I want to say yes to all kinds of things but lately I’ve been working at saying the following:

    For offers of anything that would be beneficial: Thank you so much for the kind offer but my plate is so full at the moment that I’m just not able to do X right now. (This leaves the door open for another opportunity at a time when you might be able to accommodate the request).

    For requests from people I know well professionally: Oh, I wish I could help you but I just don’t have bandwidth for any more commitments right now. Note that I only use this with people who have a fair inkling of my workload and know me well as it’s a bit straightforward.

    For everything else: No, I’m sorry but I can’t accommodate that right now. If I’m feeling particularly magnanimous and can think of a resource for the person’s request, I’ll include “…but you might try X.”

    Remember, regardless of another’s tone, just because you work for an underserved community as a non-profit, you don’t owe anyone anything at the expense of a nap, a walk in the garden, or time with the pug.

  13. Shadowedge Says:

    With work stuff, I recommend an honest talk with your boss (if that is a possibility). I had to have one with mine recently where I pointed out that my commute made coming in, even for a “quick meeting” a 2 hour round trip, and half a tank of gas. He was pretty understanding, and we worked out a tentative list of
    a) things I must be present for, so can only be scheduled on days that I work,
    b) things he needs feedback on in a short time period, but can see coming down the pipe, so I can make myself available (by email or phone, by appointment), and
    c) things that would be nice, but not necessary for me to be there (like staff meetings where I don’t need to present on anything.

    Now, when he asks if I can do something, I ask him what catalog this falls in, and make my plans accordingly.

    I’ve also had to ask my bosses in the past to minimize my extra work for a period of time due to illness, moving, or another huge project from my other job. Being clear on where you are with not too much detail can actually get your boss to help you protect your time until you have a little more slack in your timetable.

    I’m still working on this right now, but it (along with the phrase, “I cannot accept any other commitments right now.”) have been my best friend.

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