One of the best ways to remedy this is to keep my life from getting to that point. And that means I need to be able to say no to others AND to myself without guilt. Which, of course, is easier said than done.
Keep That Hand Down (For Now)
I like to volunteer for stuff. If a general request is put out to a group and I think I could do that task and do it well, my first instinct is to say, "Yes! Yes, I will do that!" In order to overcome this particular tendency, I give myself the 24-hour rule. Often these requests are sent out via email, so it's pretty easy to wait a day or so before I contact the person in charge to see if they still need someone to volunteer. Not only does this allow everyone in the group to see the email and have the opportunity to step up, but it also gives me a day to ruminate on whether this is something that I should really take on.
As I have been doing this, an interesting thing has happened. Nothing has fallen apart. No one has come up to me and asked me why I'm not doing more for the group. Most of the time the slot has already been filled by the time I get back to the person who asked. The person who stepped in for the task even (gasp!) gets it done right. Perhaps they didn't do it exactly the way I would have, but that's okay. The important part is that I just saved myself and my family hours (and sometimes days) of stress, anxiety, and take-out meals because I'm too busy to relax or to cook. And those rare times when no one else has volunteered after a day or so? Well, then I can rest assured that I am really helping because I'm needed, and not because I was the first one to read the email.
Handling Direct Question (and Answer)
Occasionally I am asked directly whether I can do something. In fact, tonight I was asked by a friend whether I could to a favor for them. I found myself going through my schedule in my head to see if I could squeeze it in between several other things happening the same evening. After a few minutes of this I realized just how absurd I was being, and I was able to stop and evaluate the task from a neutral place. It was not something I could do without inflicting a lot of stress on my family, and I felt no moral obligation to get involved. As I called my friend back to let her know I would be unable to help, it dawned on me just how far I have grown in this area. (Hence this blog post.)
It is harder for me to say no when asked directly. I often assume that if someone is asking than it means that they really need me. Being needed is very enticing to my ego and self-esteem. I love to be needed. In these situations, I have to consider several key things:
- Is it going to conflict with something else I am already obligated to do? And yes, this includes juggling multiple things on the same day. If the timing has to be "just so" to make sure you can do everything, there's a conflict.
- Do I have a moral obligation to help? I am morally obligated to care for myself, my husband, and my children under the age of 18. That doesn't mean that I do everything my family asks (that isn't good, either), but I do need to give extra weight and consideration to their requests. I also feel morally obligated to do what I have already said I would do for outside groups, whether it be church or community responsibilities. They are counting on me, and it's not fair to them to be unreliable. It's a matter of personal integrity for me.
- Who is asking? There are some close friends and family that I always want to be available for, whatever they ask. It's partly because I love them, and partly because if there's a crisis I want to be there for them. Conversely, there are other people in my life who ask me for favors all the time. I have come to realize that I am simply a phone number on a list of people they can call to get some help. I am still glad to help if it's convenient; otherwise the answer is going to be no.
- Do I want to do it? In between the close friends and impartial acquaintances are the people (like tonight) that are simply a friend asks for a favor every now and again. I may not be the first person they ask, but there is probably someone else they can ask after me if I can't do it. They are the kind of person I might ask for a casual favor as well. If they can, great; if they can't, that's okay. I have other options. In these cases, I consider whether the task can be done without causing me or my family extra stress. Do I mind? Would it be distasteful? Is it causing me anxiety to imagine myself doing this thing? If one or two or those things have to be answered with a YES, then I should probably decline with a NO.
The Art of "Unvolunteering"
Despite my best efforts, I still occasionally find myself with a lot already on my plate. In some instances, such as when I'm organizing an event, this is just the way it goes when we get close to the Big Day. When that happens I just try to hang in there and lower my expectations for the house and cooking. (Yes, grilled cheese and cereal are totally acceptable dinner options. Yes, the clean laundry can hang out in my bedroom. And no one is eating off the kitchen floor anyway, so why can't it stay dirty?) Other times it happens because of a personal crisis for a loved one. This does not include the project my teenager is cramming in the night before it's due - that's their problem, not mine. This does include sick kids and lice outbreaks.
When I find myself in a position where I realize that I need to let something go, I always look first at the big stuff I'm involved in that doesn't directly benefit me or my family. For example, a couple of years ago I was asked to organize my homeschool group's spelling bee. I originally accepted with the understanding that I would have a co-chair and we would split the work evenly. Unfortunately, the other mom moved early in the school year and I was left with the task on my own. Several months before it took place, my youngest son started becoming a huge challenge for me to handle. I often felt overwhelmed with his behavior, and was at a loss for how to manage it. It was so bad that I even stopped going a lot of places because the anxiety it caused me to leave the house with him was too great.
The spelling bee started weighing heavily on my mind. My children were not participating at all, so I wasn't helping them by organizing it. The size of the task had changed since I first agreed to do it. And lastly (though I wouldn't have called it such at the time), I was having a personal crisis with my son's emerging behavior. I decided I could let this go, so I contacted our group's leader and told her I was going to have to back out. I gave her three months' notice. I even announced to the group that I couldn't do it, and offered to pass on my information to anyone who wanted to take it on. I let them know that if no one else stepped up, then it wasn't going to happen. And guess what? A mom whose kids wanted to participate did step up and organize it.
This situation was kind of a big one (organizing an event), but the same principles can be applied to other circumstances. The key is to act early. Another time I agreed to teach a first aid class to a group of cub scouts. Within a day or so of saying yes, I realized that for various reasons it was not something I was comfortable doing. I contacted the den leader right away to let him know so he could make other arrangements.
In both of these circumstances, there was no disaster when I "unvolunteered" in a timely manner. I didn't leave it till the last minute. I didn't give indirect hints and hope that someone else would step up and relieve me of duty. I just told the person I committed to that I was going to have to back out. It was okay. What needed to happen... well, it happened anyway. Last year my sister-in-law told me a great phrase to use when I need to turn down or back out of something:
For various reasons, I am not going to be able to do ________.
I love that sentence!! I don't have to explain myself to anyone. They don't get to pry into my personal life or pass judgment on me because they don't think my reasons are valid. Mostly I love it because I don't need to be able to put into words why it's too much for me. Sometimes I just need to follow my instincts for now, and the reasons will be clear later.
Am I perfect at all of this? No, no I'm not. But I'm a lot better than I was.