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on saying no

the liberation of under-commitment

before we jump in, i invite you to take a wee quiz. please answer the following t/f questions:

  1. i have a hard time saying no: true or false?

  2. if i set a boundary, i will probably cave if bothered or guilt-tripped enough: true or false?

  3. traditional notions of productivity factor highly into my sense of self worth: true or false?

  4. i often say yes to things that i don't really have time for: true or false?

  5. i feel a great deal of obligation to make my time and energy unquestionably available to others: true or false?

  6. i worry that people will think less of me if i seem like i "can't handle" additional tasks and responsibilities: true or false?

  7. people would describe me as selfless (and mean it as a compliment): true or false?

  8. when i say no or set a boundary, i feel the need to qualify it with lots of apology and "reasons why": true or false?

  9. i feel relief when something out of my control facilitates a "no" that i would be uncomfortable making on my own: true or false?

and now before i offer any reflection, i'm curious, how did it feel to answer those questions? do your answers resonate with your hopes for yourself, or were there any that you wish could/would be different? what do you make of that?

for much of my life, one of my greatest flaws has been relentless people pleasing (see: lots of "true" answers above). i don't like conflict, i do hope that people hold me in high (or at least neutral) regard, and i chronically struggled, from my teens to probably my mid-30's, with setting and holding boundaries around my time, my responsibilities, and my capacity for commitment.

have you ever heard the saying "if you want something done, find the busiest woman in the room and ask her to do it"? that's the sign that hung from my back for over a decade. i carried the weight in group work because i have a high work ethic. i was where the buck stopped in projects because i was usually the only person who always showed up and who was accountable through to the end. my coat of arms would have included whatever's latin for "of course!" scrawled across a tired and tattered little banner at the bottom.

and for those of us who resonate thusly, there's always a complex matrix of reasons why this is the case, including factors that are both in and out of our control. for me, personal drive and the need to stay financially afloat in a profession that is massively underfunded and that runs on volunteer labor and paid skeleton crews have always been the biggest contributing factors. i could only afford to be a midwife in a rural solo practice by having another job (or jobs) to fund the "professional hobby" of birth work. my primary other jobs were teaching and administrating at a midwifery school, because the wee profession needs support from all of its members, whether through teaching, administrating, volunteer board work, or advocacy, and there's definitely pressure (and desire) to be involved and to show up for the cause.

at the height of my overcommitment, i was pouring 500% of myself into caring for home birth clients, teaching students through clinical placements, wrangling a pandemic-stressed school faculty, carrying an absolutely insane teaching load because of the number of people who had to bail on us last minute, pivoting an in-person learning program to online amidst a crumbling new executive administration, navigating my own life and family against the backdrop of a pandemic, and working to complete an interfaith chaplaincy program (which honestly was my personal pandemic salvation so wouldn't have been eligible for the chopping block).

passion and commitment to the cause got me there. my personal beliefs about the value and importance of productivity got me there. the need to hustle *hard* to make any appreciable amount of money in my struggling field got me there. the refusal to abandon beloved coworkers to a worse fate than we were already experiencing got me there.

inability to see the toll it was all taking on me or to see any reasonable way out got me there.

a thousand little instances of my inability to say no got me there.

WHEW. ok, time for a breathing break, because my stomach has knotted up just reliving that time in typed form, even 13 months later from having begun the great and liberating "walking away". our bodies always remember what fades in the mind. wisdom isn't always comfortable.


breath in. breath out.


when i was studying midwifery, a preceptor shared with me what has, over a decade later, become one of the most powerful mantras of my early mid-life and of my self and soul recovery from being a "yes addict":

no is a complete sentence.

once more with feeling: no is a complete sentence.

infusing my life with more of this sentiment is what i strive for now. it's the goal. it's that point that i may never reach in its purest form (nor do i think i want to for fear of just seeming ornery), but i will always close in half of the remaining distance each time i move forward towards it.

and at first, it's difficult, saying no. you may feel or be treated as unhelpful, judged as non-compliant or as not committed enough, not a "team player". people don't expect a no, especially from busy women and femmes. it can be jolting. it makes us less.... *cringe*.... likable.

one of my first milestones in learning to say no has been the conscious attempt to replace effusive "proving, apologizing, and explaining" with simple stated rationale. here are some examples of what this can look like for folks:

  • can you take this on? no, i don't have the capacity for new projects at the moment.

  • would you please be on this committee? no, currently i need to focus on compensated work in order to build more personal and professional capacity.

  • can you add this to your docket? no, that's not in my job description but i'm open to renegotiating my role in tandem with my salary and benefits.

  • would you mind sending me a list? no, the job of grocery shopping also includes the mental labor of inventorying, planning, and list-making.

  • i know you made this decision about (xyz important thing in your life) but i'd like you to change it because it's not what i prefer. no, i've articulated my decision and rationale for it, and while its ok not to approve, i do need you to respect it.

the second milestone for me has been learning how to weather and roll with the responses to my "no's" (which are usually fine but can occasionally be quite intense and negative if that's not something people are used to from you). chaplaining skills come in handy here:

  • say your no.

  • take a breath (you did it!! good job!!).

  • make holding and hearing space for big feelings and know that the feelings are a reflection of the institution, culture, or other person, not of you. build an emotional/energetic fence if you need one.

  • validate that you hear why your no is difficult (yes, it is really tough that such an important committee has had a chair vacancy for such a long time, i agree!).

  • take another breath.

  • hold your no.

  • tell someone about it so you can inspire them to find their no as well (this is crucial!).

i have to admit that my no's come easy right now because (see wee quiz question 9), no one is going to argue with a pregnant person who says they can't take on any additional tasks and responsibilities at the moment, but i won't have those training wheels forever. many people have expressed to me that the pandemic has been such a buffer for them. for now, i feel thankful for the space to play around and curiously try on a little more no in my life.

where are places in your life that need some no? we'll all have different access to the ability to decline demands and requests based on factors like the safety of our relationships, our access to resources, our seats (or lack thereof) at the table, and our innate privileges and points of marginalization, but regardless of the fullness of our "no autonomy", we each have at least some degree or area of control.

what are you holding right now that feels like dragging a weight? what would letting go of it feel like?

who's waiting for you to "inevitably say yes" to a request they've made of you for which you have zero capacity?

what's taking time away from your ability to care for yourself and your family?

what are you carrying right now that's not yours to carry?

whether or not you decide to take any appreciable life inventory with regard to adding more no, i encourage you to give it at least a tiny try. even just a teeny one. someone wants to make plans and you're tired? try on a no. there's a sign up sheet for a work potluck and you're struggling to make ends meet with your own groceries? no.

do it, and know that, though it is at first terrifying, it can quickly become addictive. in the end, stepping into authenticity always is.

be well, keep growing, keep going.

abby hall luca

the hearth chaplain

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Theresa Bessette
Theresa Bessette
Feb 17, 2023

thank you Abby for this perfectly timed sharing of your vast wisdom.

Abby Luca
Abby Luca
Feb 17, 2023
Replying to

i'm so glad that it resonated for you <3

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