A couple of years ago, I agreed to give a virtual talk to help raise money for a literary space. In an ordinary month, I’m sure it would have been no problem. But it was April 2020. My mother and my grandmother were in hospice. My husband and I were struggling to work full-time and help our younger child access remote school in the midst of overlapping emergencies. The week before the scheduled talk, my grandma died and my mom began to decline. If a friend in the same situation had asked me what to do, I wouldn’t have just encouraged them to back out of the event; I would have offered to call and cancel it for them. But there are the rules you have for other people, and the rules you make for yourself. Though I told the organizers some of what I was going through, in the end I just couldn’t bring myself to go back on a commitment or beg for the grace I needed.
My memory of the talk is patchy, so I can’t tell you how it went—probably fine; I’ve always been able to work no matter what is going on in my life, although the fact that I know this and routinely bank on the ability feels like part of the problem. What I do clearly remember is how hard it was to force myself through the motions that day: to join a Zoom meeting room full of strangers, paste on a smile, and talk in a chipper voice for over an hour, never letting on that I was in the deepest pain. That I had only myself to blame made it worse—I knew I’d been treating myself like a robot, which made it all too easy for those I worked and volunteered with in various capacities to see and treat me that way, too.
I’ve always found it challenging to say no to a professional request or invitation. I used to worry about disappointing others, appearing unhelpful or ungrateful. If I declined too often, would people stop asking me to work or collaborate with them at all? I’m still not sure how much of this pressure was related to being an Asian American woman in publishing, aware of how few people like me were in the sorts of roles I wanted to attain. I know there were times when I felt as though the only way to prove myself was to consistently do more, ignore my own needs, grab every opportunity because there might not be another. It wasn’t enough to have one good reason to say no; I needed several—and even then, I would second-guess my instincts. Only the double whammy of pandemic and personal grief forced me to acknowledge how unsustainable it was to always say yes.
As I recalibrate and learn to say no more often, it’s been useful for me to hear how others make these decisions—most everyone I know fields more requests than they can realistically accommodate. Angela Chen, author of Ace and Ideas editor at Wired, told me about a framework she finds helpful: “I think of myself as having a single watering can and several plants, and sometimes other people ask me to help water their plants, too. You only have so much water in your watering can on a given day, and so you have to decide which plants you’re going to attend to, and which you can’t responsibly take care of.” Another friend has made a habit of checking in with herself and paying close attention to her reaction when she gets a request. “It’s almost always true that my body has a preference I can trust,” she said, adding that if it’s an offer of paid work and she’s unable to do it, she tries to suggest friends who might be able to instead.
Jasmine Guillory, author of several books, including While We Were Dating, told me that she will often remind herself of the consequences of past decisions—“times I didn’t say no and should have, and how hard and stressful that was; and times I did say no, and was later so grateful for it.” She also created a decision matrix—a series of questions aimed at helping her gather more information about the particular request, consider all her options and existing demands on her time, and make the call that’s right for her. “For people pleasers like you and me, who automatically say yes to things, having a matrix or system is good because it forces you to stop and think before saying yes or no,” she said.
My own version of this involves taking stock of my deadlines, my other obligations, and my mental and physical health before committing. I pretend that I’ve already agreed to do something, and then pay attention to how that decision makes me feel—or I approach it from the other side, asking myself how I’d feel if I said no. I also think of instances when I should have declined and failed to (usually things I tried to muscle through while overwhelmed or grieving). If I am genuinely torn, I might make a pro/con list—common pros include I think this person/organization is doing work that is positive and inclusive and I want to be involved, or This is really important to someone I care about, or I’ll get paid enough to make it worth my while; cons are rarely negatives inherent to the request itself so much as acknowledgments of energy I don’t have or time that’s already spoken for. Sometimes it also helps to talk through my options with people I trust, who want me to treat myself with compassion and will celebrate a much-needed boundary or break as much as any career accomplishment.