Managing stress requires setting appropriate boundaries with others. Many people who are frequently stressed-out have a difficult time saying “no” to requests from others who want their help or who invite them to social events. For example, a friend asks you to help him move next week, and you agree even though you already have enough on your plate. Or, your mother wants you to come over this weekend for dinner, and you agree, even though you are exhausted from a busy week.
Why do some people have trouble saying “no”? I think there are three main reasons: 1) out of a sincere desire to be helpful toward others, but not having an accurate awareness of their time availability; 2) to make others happy and avoid hurting their feelings; and/or 3) out of guilt.
First, most people want to help others when they ask. They want to provide it out of benevolence and mutual respect towards that person, especially if it’s a friend or family member who’s helped them in the past. We do this even with strangers, such as when we give their battery a jump or provide directions. Being helpful is fine and warranted when you want to help and you have the time and energy to do it. However, some people take on more than they can handle and put themselves in situations that significantly increase stress. This happens when you agree to help before making sure you have the time and energy to do it. Time management and organization in one’s life is vital in knowing what and how much you can take on. You only have so much time in a day/week/month, and at a certain point, you’ll overload yourself if you take on more than you can reasonably handle. The more organized you are with your time, the easier it is to know when to say “yes” and when to politely, but firmly, say “no.”
Second, people sometimes agree to social events, not because they really want to go, but because they don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. They agree to go to a party, dinner, relative’s house, date, etc., when they would rather do something or be somewhere else. This is usually coming from a sincere desire to be nice or polite, but it is done at the detriment of their own interests and happiness, which only increases their stress. They usually overestimate how upset the other person will be if they say “no” to his/her invitation. Most people won’t take it personally and will respect you for being honest. For the few who do get upset, it is not your fault as it is not your obligation to agree to their invitation (see below). Instead of agreeing to a social event you don’t want to attend, use the time to do something you want to do (such as make plans with friends you want to see, or stay home and relax to recover from a stressful week).
Third, many people feel guilty if they say “no” to a request from others. This is usually caused by a mistaken premise that underlies the guilt, which is: “If someone asks me for help and I don’t agree to do it, then I’m a selfish, immoral, or bad person.” The truth is, just because someone asks you to do something does not make you obligated to do it. It is perfectly okay to say “no” to the request and still be a good person. Helping others can be a benevolent thing, but not when it’s done at the detriment of your own life, values, goals, or health. If you previously agreed to help someone, or you have a legal contract with someone to perform a particular service, then that’s different. You should honor your previous commitment or contract out of integrity or the law. But, if this is not the case, you have no obligation to do anything you don’t want to do, and you should not feel guilty for saying “no.”
Learning to be more assertive and setting proper boundaries with others is vital to managing stress and enjoying your life. This first requires a desire to have more control over your time and life, and then challenging the common premise that it is your duty to help others just because they ask for it. Try it out for a week, say “no” to others when you want to, and see how you feel. Most likely, your stress will decrease and you will discover that it gives you more freedom and choices in your life.
(Originally appeared on Examiner.com)