“We have a few more spots on this committee we need to fill. Are you interested?”
Before I could ask myself if this was something I even wanted to do, I felt the impulse to blurt out, “Yes!” But just before I spoke, I heard my inner voice tell me to stop. And I listened.
Volunteering for things is so ingrained that I’ll take on new commitments like this without a moment of consideration. Say yes now. Figure out the logistics later.
As you can imagine this pattern has led to a whole host of problems for me—feelings of burnout, overwhelm, and resentment to name a few. Something needed to shift.
I began to wonder, if the pattern was something I learned, could I begin to unlearn it?
When I stop to examine the underlying emotions at play, I realize that leaving open space—whether it’s on my calendar, in my head, on my future resume—feels kind of scary. I worry that turning down this particular opportunity somehow will stand in the way of getting the next one. What if this “no” means I’m less likely to achieve my long-term goals?
I’ve been operating with a scarcity mindset: opportunities are limited, so I need to take every single one that’s in front of me. But going hard and fast like this for years has been unsustainably depleting. The exhaustion had me questioning, what if I’ve been wrong in operating this way? What if the practice of saying “no” to something that isn’t a great fit is paving the way for me to say “yes” to the right thing in the future?
Several years ago my friend and coach Rosie Molinary shared with me a tool she developed called The Wholehearted Continuum that she encouraged me to consult any time I was presented with an opportunity. There are six questions to ask myself:
- Am I thrilled to be asked?
- Am I happy to prepare?
- Am I eager to go—and ok with leaving my family behind?
- Will I be joyful while I’m there?
- Am I ready and willing to take on the less glamorous aspects of work?
- Am I going to want to bask in the afterglow after it’s done?
If the answer to each question isn’t “yes,” it’s probably going to make me feel resentful if I take it on, which will only eat up precious energy that would have been better spent on something else.
To activists, teachers, pastors, and all kinds of folks who want to do good in the world—many of us struggle with when to say no vs. when to say yes. We want to jump at every opportunity and agree to every partnership, every action, every extra minute trying to help the movement or cause, no matter how worn out we feel. I get it. I’m the same way. If you’ve been operating like this for some length of time, you’re probably suffering as a result.
What if we took time to pause from all of our “yes”ing to imagine a different way of doing this important justice work? How might we—and our movements—be transformed if everything we committed to doing everything from a place of wholeheartedness instead of scarcity? Could grind be replaced with joy? Could burnout become rejuvenation?
Start with something small. If you are a to-do list person like me, this week try crossing off one thing that isn’t essential that you can take off your place. Or the next time you’re inclined to volunteer, try pausing first before responding, and say something like “Let me think about it and get back to you.” Pretty liberating, isn’t it?