As a recovering people pleaser, perfectionist and overthinker, I’ve experienced burnout due to unrealistic expectations, doing too much, and getting caught up in other people’s agendas. It’s scope creep—when the expectations, requirements, goals, vision, etc., shift beyond what was originally agreed. As much as others can do it to us, we can be just as guilty of doing it to ourselves. This is especially so if we’re not mindful of our boundaries and bandwidth.

An example of getting caught up in other people’s agendas is when someone asks ‘Can we have quick chat?’. Or they ask ‘Can I pick your brain about X?’—this always conjures up a rather unpleasant Frankenstein image in my mind.

Generally, I don’t say yes straight away to these requests without knowing what they’re about. Why? Because invariably, a “quick question” or “little favour” are not what they seem. They become the equivalent of ‘Okay, so can you tell me how to fix my business/relationship/life?’ Or, I imagine that it’s cup-of-sugar territory when it’s more ‘I know we don’t know each other but can you watch my kids for a few hours?’. True story, incidentally.

One person’s idea of “quick” or “little” might actually undervalue your time, energy, effort and emotions–your bandwidth. Also, though, you just might not have the bandwidth, need or desire to do it, and that’s okay.

For people who tend to feel guilty about asking questions, expressing discomfort, saying no, not doing ‘all the things’, indiscriminately agreeing to quick chats, little favours and pick-your-brain sessions is a recipe for resentment, frustration and pain.

You say yes. The scope changes or becomes clear. You feel funny inside while trying to meet the person’s and your own [unrealistic] expectations. And you don’t think you can bow out, query anything, or say no without making them look or feel bad. So you’re trapped in your ever-increasing discomfort.

Ask questions to gauge scope and time.

Call it due diligence and being mindful of your respective boundaries and bandwidth. There’s also, contrary to popular opinion, absolutely nothing wrong with wanting a bit more info about an ask. There’s a culture of framing no and asking questions as being “difficult”. We’re “rude”, “ungenerous”, “not a team player”, “big for your boots”, and other such guff. Straight up, these judgements are bullshit.

You don’t exist for the consumption of others as if you are an inanimate being with no needs. Be super wary of anyone who thinks they’re entitled to your bandwidth or that it’s wrong for people to have boundaries or to value themselves.

Stick to the scope, particularly the agreed timeframe.

Watch out for strangers or people who have form for pitching epic tales of War and Peace or big asks as something “quick” or a “little favour”. Also, stick to the scope and timeframe if you tend to be an overdoer, overgiver and get carried away. One way of saying yes to these asks without losing yourself is to agree while also stating how much time you have or including their stated scope. ‘Yes. I’ve got 5-10 minutes max for a quick chat. Does that work?’ or ‘Sure, I can {repeat as close to verbatim what they asked}’. This tends to flush out the true nature of the ask or clarifies that you’re both on the same page.

You can also state what you can do rather than making you wholesale agree to an ask. ‘Sure. I can do X, but I’m not the best person for Y’. Or ‘Sure, I can do A, but I don’t have the bandwidth for B and C.’

Over time, I’ve embraced the recognition that I would much prefer to notice where I’m getting carried away and check in with myself about my original aims and intentions than not finish what I’m working on at all or exhaust myself. 

Remember, just because someone has a need (or you sense it), that doesn’t mean that it’s your responsibility to meet it.

The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon/HarperCollins) is out now and available in bookshops on and offline. Listen to the first chapter.
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