Just Say No

Stand up if you’re spread too thin

By Krista Threefoot 

Like Ado Annie from the musical Oklahoma!, I cain’t say no.

Unlike Ado Annie, thrilling men aren’t the problem—it’s anyone who asks if I can help. 

My problem isn’t unique. I’m surrounded by women who can’t say no, and for good reason. Women are conditioned to be givers. We learn from childhood that people expect us to be compliant and accommodating. We also learn that when we meet these expectations, we earn praise and validation. Over time, what we’re willing to give begins to determine the value of our self-worth. It’s no wonder that so many women end up saying yes to everything.

Our giving habit usually starts innocently enough. We agree to join a church committee, or volunteer at a community fair, or serve food at a PTA luncheon. “Of course,” we say. We want to be involved. What’s the harm? 

And there is no harm in that first yes. Helping others spawns connections and support networks. In order to thrive, communities need people who are willing to share their time and talents. 

But one yes has a tendency to turn into a dozen more. Before we know it, we’re chairing that committee, running that community fair and leading the PTA. We’re saying yes to that friendor boss, co-worker or spousewho always seem to need something from us. 

Meanwhile, we’re meeting the demands of our professions and scrambling to attend to all the details of living. We’re writing briefs, running offices, selling houses, cooking, cleaning, taking the car to the shop, the dog to the vet, the kids to the dentist.

Moms experience a double whammy of expectations. We give nonstop to our kids, and we do so willingly because we love them. But as they grow older, we’re drawn into their outer worlds toowhere we’re expected to give even more of ourselves.

These demands affect mothers from all backgrounds. Moms who don’t work outside the home are pressured to help because, well, what else are they doing with their time? Moms who do work outside the home are pressured to help because, clearly, as working moms they owe it to their kids to be more involved in their lives. We just can’t win. 

Once we’ve said yes to everything, any benefits from pitching in are subsumed by our sense of losing ourselves in service to others. But the demands keep rolling in; the expectations never cease. 

I’m a giver by nature; I like to make people happy. The reverse is also true; I hate letting people down. I’m terrible at saying no. But for my own sanity, I’m trying to learn. 

The learning curve has been steep—just ask my therapist•but a recent conversation with a friend transformed my approach to the problem.

She was feeling guilty for turning down a request from someone close to her. As we talked, it became obvious to me that she’d made the right decision. I was proud of her for standing her ground. 

Then, it hit me. If we can see so clearly why our friends have a right to protect their boundaries, why can’t we do the same for ourselves? If we can be proud of a friend for standing her ground without explanation or apology, why can’t we be equally proud for ourselves? 

Women don’t often learn to love themselves without strings. But what if we tried to do just that? And what if we started by accepting that we don’t need to prove our worth by giving what we don’t want to give?

People will always ask us to do more, give more, be more. But we can change our own expectations. It’s not easy, but I do think it’s necessary.

So go ahead. Repeat that “Girl, you’re amazing,” speech you just gave your friend to yourself. Then, the next time someone asks you to bring homemade gluten-free, dairy-free, preservative-free cupcakes to the preschool fundraiser, you say, “Sorry, maybe next time.” 

In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to do the same. And if anyone wants to send Ado Annie’s Romeo in a sombrero and chaps over my way, go ahead. It might be fun to practice saying no to something other than a potluck.

Krista Threefoot lives in Columbia with her husband, two daughters and a rescue dog. She blogs at andanotherthinghon.com.

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