When you’ve taken on too much and don’t know where to go from here. 

Many of us have been socialized from a very young age to take initiative, to “take one for the team”, to step up when no one else does, to be problem solvers. We’ve learned that taking on responsibilities, tasks, and roles, can be socially reinforcing and personally beneficial. Maybe it’s helped us take the next steps academically or in our career, be valued by family or friends, or it’s rewarded our sense of self or even our ego – reminding us of our strength, resilience, or desire to feel needed and capable.

Oftentimes, however, this well-meaning “yes”-person way of being can result in taking on too much. Saying “yes” to every request can sometimes have unpleasant consequences. For example, when taking on too many responsibilities, we might overwhelm ourselves to the point where we are not able to give our full attention to any one task and can make mistakes or struggle to hold all of our responsibilities in mind. Or conversely, we may be really good at “handling” everything, getting tasks done efficiently and with relative ease, but we fail to evaluate our own physical and emotional reserves. In other words, by blindly accepting the attitude that “we can handle it,” we neglect to reflect on our own limitations and needs and may miss opportunities to think about our own goals and desires. We might just automatically take on things about which we are not passionate, or filling our time with tasks that are not conducive to our personal growth and development.

Beginning to reflect on when and how to say “no” is a process. Here are some ways to get started.

We can begin this process by taking inventory and reflecting. This involves reviewing not only our current responsibilities, obligations, and goals, but also considering our strengths and limitations. Such a review allows us to have a realistic perspective of our mental, physical, and emotional availability about those obligations and goals, and our options regarding taking on more or setting boundaries. If, for example, you are going through an especially challenging transitional period, then this reflection would help you be very aware of your need to focus on this transition when a coworker asks you to start a big project with them during that time. This way, you would be able to avoid automatically saying “yes,” and instead either postpone the collaboration or altogether skip this one.

It may also be important to reflect on the conflicts we facewhen we are choosing whether or not to take something on. That is, setting limits to our capacity is influenced by our relationships, our values, our needs, and our experiences, and can therefore be a conflicted process. We might say, “this relationship is important to me and my values dictate I help this person no matter what.” At the same time, our experience is that we are stretched way too thin as it is and might pay with our physical or mental health if we dedicate any more time to that person. Because of such conflicting feelings, it may be important to unpack such conflicts to help prioritize our commitments. For many, individual therapy can be a great space in which to safely explore these internal dilemmas. 

Check in with what it feels like to say “no”and address any fear or reluctance that might come up for you in the process. Remember, occasionally expressing that you cannot take something on doesn’t make you bad, irresponsible, unmotivated, or “not a team player.” In fact, not taking everything on can often demonstrate to others that you have healthy boundaries and are appropriately prioritizing tasks.The process of saying “no” can be fraught with worries over offending someone or being perceived negatively. The words that we use to say “no” do not have to be harsh or rejecting — but they do require us to be assertive while being considerate. It often works best if we can empathize with the person making the request and can express our own vulnerability and commitments in a kind manner. For example, we can say something like, “This sounds important to you. I have to share that I am feeling overwhelmed right now, and would simply not be able to give this the attention it deserves. I will not be able to help you out this time.”We could also keep it short and sweet, saying “I appreciate you reaching out to me, and I’m truly sorry, but I don’t think I’ll be able to do this.” It is also important to remember that it is entirely alright to say “no” even if we don’t have any other responsibilities or tasks, but want to give ourselves permission to prioritize ourselves.This would sound like, “Thank you for thinking of me for this, but I’m trying this new thing of learning to say “no” if I feel overwhelmed or if I need to focus on some me-stuff. Have you had this experience yourself?”

Like anything else, learning to set healthy boundaries takes practice.

Finding where your limits lie takes time and practice. We will at times stretch ourselves thin or alternatively, might decline too many opportunities to work on some exciting projects or help someone. In either case, we must remember that it’s a work-in-progress and that our capacities as well as our limitations change as we change and grow. Our job is to remain open to these changes and to really listen to ourselves when we feel stretched thin or when we aren’t doing as much as we would like to. That is, maintaining a reflective stance allows us to make the best choices for us, our obligations, our communities, and our goals. So that with the practice of saying “yes” and “no” at the times that they are called for, we practice being true to ourselves, in (stretched)thin and in thick.

I’m Samantha Liberman, Psy.D. , one of the therapists you could see at Wright Institute Los Angeles where we offer Affordable Therapy for Everyday People!

Samantha received her doctoral degree from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Los Angeles. She has previously trained at The Chicago School Counseling Center, Hillsides Full Service Program, and The Achievable Foundation working primarily with adolescents and adults. She is passionate about working with patients utilizing psychodynamic and object-relational theories.