Those of us in the helping professions (therapy, coaching, education, nursing, social work, etc) are really, really good at taking care of others…. and really, really bad at taking care of ourselves.  We give everything we have to our clients and if we aren’t careful, we can end up wrung out and miserable.

This has to stop. And the first step is the hardest.

The first thing you have to learn to SAY NO. A lot.

  • No, I won’t be a chaperone.
  • No, I won’t stay late to read through your PD plan.
  • No, I won’t come in early to meet with that parent.
  • No, I won’t meet with you during my lunch hour.

Ok, the reason I jumped right into those very specific examples was to get the hair raised on your arms. Are you feeling defensive? Are you ready to tell me all about how I don’t understand what it’s like for you?

You’re right, I don’t know your specifics, but I do know this:

Nothing changes if nothing changes.

  • If you are miserable and run down, something has to change or you will stay miserable and run down.
  • If you never have time to do what you love (yoga, knitting, reading, going for a walk in the park, watching Doctor Who), something has to change or you won’t ever have that time.

You get the point.

Now, no one expects you to go from being “Go-to Gail” to “Nope Nancy” overnight.  But I do challenge you to say no to just one thing this week.

Keep it small, but DO IT.

Think about this week- what have you committed to that you can cancel? What do you anticipate you’ll be asked to do? How can you say no? Make a plan, practice on your husband or best friend, and then do it.

As you mentally scan your week don’t be surprised if you get more and more frustrated.

“Can’t cancel that. Can’t cancel that. No… no… no… I can’t cancel anything!”

Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Here are 10 reasons why you think you can’t say no, right alongside my loving brick wall of resolve.

  1. It seems so small!  It’s actually easier to say no to large projects. “Sorry I can’t take on that 3-month project because I’ve already got this other huge thing I’m doing” is a lot easier than “I’m not able to do that 10-minute thing for you because I’m trying to wrap up my day.”  It feels petty. But you must protect those small pockets of time because it’s the small things that add up to your day-to-day reality. If you have no bandwidth, it’s at least as much because you say yes to every small thing as it because you got dragged into the big projects. Feel free to say your first no to something extremely small. It will make a massive difference, I promise.
  2. I always say yes. How can I just up and say no now? Nothing changes if nothing changes. And there’s never going to be a better time than right now. People are going to have to deal with it eventually, so they might as well start now. Take a stand and protect your time and energy starting this week. In fact, I think today’s the day.
  3. What I want to do is selfishly for me. How can I say no to something that’s for the kids? Is today the only day that you can help your kids? Unless your plan is to burn out completely and leave the field of education, you have to take the long view. Kids are always going to need more, and you can’t carry their whole burden. You must set boundaries to ensure that you have the time to rest and recover. You will do a better job supporting them if you do.
  4. I am a helper by nature, trade, and identity. What does it say about me if I start saying no? This is a big one.  We are all helpers in a deep, fundamental way.  We LOVE to help. And it feels like a betrayal of our very nature to say no when someone asks. But here’s the thing about that: Imagine that a young girl came to you and told you that she was being run ragged by her boyfriend. He asks her to do everything and she’s happy to do it… except, she’s starting to fail at her schoolwork, she’s not getting any sleep, and she hasn’t seen her friends in over a month. What do you tell her to do?  Obviously, we tell her that she’s being taken advantage of and that part of becoming a woman is learning to stand strong against those people who will suck the life out of her. Okay, now replace “boyfriend” with “job” and “school work” with either “marriage” or “parenting” or maybe even “life.”  How can we expect others to take our advice about strength and power if we can’t do it ourselves?  The absolute biggest help we can be–to our kids, our colleagues, and the system as a whole–is to shine a light down a different path.  Show everyone that there’s another way to live. That would make you a hero.
  5. No one else knows how to do it. And they never will if you keep doing it every single time it has to be done.
  6. I don’t want to let down my colleagues. You will go down with the ship, gosh darn it, because All for One and One for All!  I joke, but camaraderie is very powerful. You can still be a team player without falling asleep on your commute. If you plan to stay with this amazing team for long, it’s absolutely critical that you find a way to set boundaries.  If your team is very supportive, you can try being honest with your colleagues. Say “I’m feeling really run down — can you take this one and I’ll cover you next week? Then we both get a break.”
  7. It’s too late to say no.  Is it? Are you sure?  I think you should try.
  8. I actually want to do this. Okay, this one is hard. I want you to do anything that you really want to do. If it helps you to become the teacher (or human!) you want to become, I want you to do it… except. Can I just suggest that you might be having some FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)?  If you are feeling run down, it might be the smarter decision to go home and get some rest. Good opportunities will come around again, I promise.

Now it’s your turn.


relaxation strategy

About the author

Dr. Amanda Crowell is a cognitive psychologist and business coach who helps accidental entrepreneurs get more clients and have a bigger impact. She is the author of Great Work, the host of the Unleashing Your Great Work podcast, and the creator of the Great Work Journals. Amanda's TEDx talk has received almost two million views and has been featured on TED's Ideas blog and Ted Shorts. Her ideas have also been featured on NPR, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, and Thrive Global.