Stephen Covey, in his book The 8th Habit, says “the first and most demanding form of personal growth takes place in the family.”   Since embarking on the journey of motherhood a little over two years ago, I completely agree with his assessment.

Becoming a mother has challenged me to grow and see myself in ways I never have before. It has required an honesty about who I am and how to best care for myself that has produced some of the best fruits in my life.  But they also have been some of my hardest lessons.

In my own life, and in the lives of many other mothers, I have the tendency to say yes to too many things.   We have difficulties with boundaries, especially with giving our time and effort. We have a hard time communicating the word “no.”  And we spend our days exhausted and stretched thin.

Why do we say yes when we really mean no?

I am not a psychotherapist, just a holistic health counselor who has observed a handful of reasons why I (and others) are in an unhealthy place because we have a hard time knowing when and how to say no. Here are four common reasons I’ve come across in my own life.

1.  We seek approval.

Many of us say yes because we’ve created a scenario that forces us to say yes.  If I seek outside approval to feel good about myself, then when someone asks me to do something, I feel obligated to say yes in order to stay in their good graces.

This is a subtle dynamic, because most of us don’t believe that we are so controlled by wanting to be liked.  Unfortunately, though, the truth is that many of us have placed our value on what others think of us.

Wanting to be liked isn’t a bad thing.   But when I make my own value and worth dependent on what others think of me, then I’ve created a scenario that doesn’t allow me to take care of myself – if caring for myself means disappointing someone else.

For me, this was a deeply spiritual issue.  When I realized that I needed others to define my worth, I couldn’t help but feel worthless.  It took time in a quiet, prayerful place to hear the soft truth of who I am and from whom comes my worth.

2.  We’re unrealistic about what we can really do.

multiple shadows of the same person
Photo by Demi-Brooke

Raising children automatically squeezes our schedules and crunches our time.  When we have a clear handle on what time we truly have, we know when we can comfortably say yes, and when we confidently need to say no.

I have a small amount of “free” time every week when the kids are being watched.  For weeks, I consistently expected myself to get done more during these times than I possibly could have.  I ended up constantly feeling behind the eight ball.    I felt unaccomplished, disappointed and frustrated.

I found a helpful, simple solution.  For every task on my list, I mini-task it.  This means I break it down into its smaller baby steps.  I may have this on my list for the week:

  1. Mail gift out to Melissa

Underneath I will mini-task it:

  1. Mail gift out to Melissa
  • Find box big enough for gift
  • Wrap gift
  • Pack gift in box
  • Address box
  • Bring to post office

Then I will assign the approximate amount of time each baby step will take:

  1. Mail gift out to Melissa
  • Find box big enough for gift – 3 min
  • Wrap gift – 5 min
  • Pack gift in box and seal – 5 min
  • Address box – 2 min
  • Bring to post office – 15 min

Before breaking it down, I wouldn’t have thought this task might take me 30 minutes.  But now that I do this to all my tasks, I only expect to get done what is reasonable given the time I actually have.  This has helped me say no, because I am better at predicting what time things may take.

3.  Our priorities are unclear.

It also helps to spell out my top priorities in life.  They’re different now that I’m a mom and home manager.   What I say yes to impacts other people in my life.I learned how to quickly evaluate a request so I wouldn’t default into saying yes when I should have said no.

By identifying my priorities, I can ask myself, “Is taking this on directly related to my top priorities?” If it isn’t, it’s better if I wait and consider whether I have time for it – before I say yes.

For example – I love my friends.  They are tremendously important to me and remain a priority in my life.  But they are a different priority than my husband and children… and rightly so.

So now, when a friend asks me for a favor, I have to consider the impact of saying yes.  It’s been hard, but when I honor my priorities, I’m more peaceful and confident.  One great way to get clear on your priorities is to write a family mission statement.

4.  We do for others what they can do for themselves.

This one sounds harsh, huh?  I don’t mean for it to be.  I love doing things for others.  I love modeling generosity and extending charity to those around me.  But sometimes we take on the giving role so often that we don’t consider whether our doing it is a good thing.

My children are young.  Most of what I do for them needs to be done,  but they are not completely dependent any more – at least not my two-and-a-half-year-old.  I’ve realized there are many things he could do for himself.  And by me not doing them, I’m not giving him the opportunity to grow. Now, he loves making his bed, picking out his clothes, putting his laundry in the basket, helping me make lunch, and bringing his plate to the sink after meals.

In our lives, relationships of all kinds, if left unchecked, can become stale and unhealthy.  When your own priorities have shifted, you need to reconsider what you do for others, and whether an act of giving is a positive, healthy one, or if ultimately, it’s better to let someone take more responsibility for their own needs.

balanced girl on a ball
Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

To end on another Stephen Covey note, “Parenthood is the most important leadership responsibility in life and will provide the greatest levels of happiness and joy.” As leaders in our families, we must consider the model we are setting for our children.

Overstretching ourselves at the cost of healthy and balanced life is never something we’d wish for our kids.  Correcting this tendency in our own life is a beautiful gift to them.

Do you find that you say yes when you mean no?  Is saying no something that is hard for you to do?

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