Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“Can you help me with this problem set? I’m stuck on #7.”
“Do you have time to talk? I could really use a friend.”
“Are you free to go over our dance routine tomorrow?”
My go-to answer to questions like these is, “Yes, of course!” and I often use it when I probably shouldn’t. As much as I love helping people and being a trusted resource for my friends, I am too quick to prioritize their well-being over my own.
Does this mean my friends should stop asking me for things because they should know how busy/stressed/tired I am? No. Does it mean that I should learn how to say no, so they can trust me when I say yes? Definitely.
I didn’t realize that this trust issue was so important until I got to a low point in my life and needed to ask others for help. I wasn’t afraid of being rejected; I was afraid that people would say yes. What if they burnt themselves out trying to help me when they already had too much on their plates? To this day, I have trouble asking for help because I project my own inability to say no onto others. Let me begin with a story which illustrates this inability:
One night near the beginning of this semester, I noticed that someone I knew was visibly upset about something. I found myself wrestling with whether or not to offer a hug and an open ear. On the one hand, I was emotionally exhausted and knew that this person had a history of taking a mile if I gave them an inch, either unable or unwilling to respect reasonable boundaries. On the other hand, this person was obviously in more emotional distress than I was, and walking away from the situation seemed morally horrendous. (I ended up walking away.)
While processing this experience with my CAPS therapist, she said two important things. First, she explained that there was actually nothing morally horrendous about saying no (either in my head or to someone’s face) in order to prioritize my self-care.
This bears repeating: There is nothing shameful about saying no if it means you are taking care of yourself and being honest about your own abilities.
My therapist also suggested that perhaps there was a middle ground between walking away and giving my whole self to this person. I could explain that I noticed something was up but didn’t have the time or energy to offer more than a hug. I could tell the person that I had to go now but that I had 20 minutes free later that night if they needed someone to talk to for a short period of time. I could even say that I didn’t have any resources to give but I just wanted to acknowledge their pain and let them know that they weren’t alone.
All of these options potentially have the effect of warming someone’s heart and making things a little better, even if I can’t fix all of their problems. However, as I explained to my therapist, face-to-face conversations can be difficult to walk away from. Even if they only said a sentence about what caused the emotional distress, it might make me feel obligated to help them further. I might be guilted into staying, because if I really cared about them I would take the time to help, right?
Wrong. If you really care about someone, you need to take the time to care for yourself. That way, you are at your best to offer support down the road. It doesn’t help anyone if you martyr yourself trying to fix everyone’s problems.
What my therapist was getting at, and what I am now coming to, is the importance of creating options and setting boundaries. Any time you are faced with the paradox of wanting to help but not having the time/energy/resources/etc., it is important to remember that you have options. Don’t have an hour to go over a dance routine? Maybe you have 15 minutes to review it. Too exhausted to be an emotional support for a friend? Perhaps you can offer a hug. Can’t donate $20 to a cause? Maybe a few bucks will make a difference.
Once you’ve chosen a suitable option (which might be offering nothing and fully prioritizing your self-care), it is important to maintain the boundaries you are setting. If you give more than you originally offered, you are hurting not only yourself but also your friend: either they may come to expect more than you offer, or they may stop accepting any of your help for the sake of your well-being.
The more you practice saying “no” (or “how about this instead?”) to others, the more you will start to feel comfortable asking for help, too. Once you realize that “no” is not a rejection, but a symbol of understanding and trust, the “yes” begins to mean a lot more.
In fact, my most trusted friends are not those who are always there for me no matter what. They are the ones I know will tell me when they have too much on their plates. They’re the ones who I can call at 2 a.m. knowing they won’t be mad if I wake them up, and they’ll tell me if they need to go back to sleep.
An hour of time with a trusted friend, knowing that they have taken care of themselves and are able to dedicate their time to me, is priceless.
Featured image courtesy of www.metoffice.gov.uk