Self Care? Say No! 

Suzanne Bellanger

Brown University

Associate Director, Direct Response & Stewardship Marketing

Recently my college-aged daughter texted me an image of her freshly manicured (blue! pointy!) nails and titled it “self-care”. She’d had a rough week acclimating back to school after winter break and felt the need to do something for herself. Self-care as a “thing” is pretty buzzy these days and she buys into it wholeheartedly. And I admire her for it. She’s a serious student and she tends to be anxious in a lot of situations. But she’s also really good at recognizing internal cues and understanding when she needs to indulge a bit in order to refocus or redirect. It’s a talent she didn’t inherit from me.   

The day after I received that text I found myself flat out on my couch, having finally succumbed to the almost-cold I’d been fighting for more than a week. In quick succession I received a text about a volunteer meeting I forgot to attend, an email about member dues I didn’t pay, a notice about an article I needed to write, and a few g-chats from colleagues looking for deliverables due that day. And I was late picking up my son from school. Ugh. I went from feeling crappy to feeling crappy and incompetent. In trying to fit in too many things, I’d failed everyone. 

If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you can’t properly take care of anyone– or anything else. So, if you’re looking to be more productive, more focused, more helpful in any way this year, you must start with yourself. And I’d argue you’d have to start with the less tangible aspects of caring for yourself; the ones that don’t involve painting your nails blue, soothing your skin with miracle potions, working out knotted muscles with an indulgent massage or correcting your diet by eating more vegetables. Pampering your mind and soul is equally– or even more–  important as pampering your body. One way to do this is to prioritize your personal time and embrace saying no. 

Saying no is hard. Especially if you’re a people pleaser, which I am (for better or worse). And I’d bet if you’re a donor relations professional you are also a people pleaser. It’s sort of the nature of the job. We are here to ensure that our organization's donors have everything they need to feel valued, appreciated, and recognized. We’re here to say yes! Helping people feels good! But if we don’t recognize our own limitations and set personal boundaries we’ll eventually burn out, and then we won’t be of any help to anyone. 

Obviously there are cases when “no” is not an appropriate response. I’m not advocating for shunning things in life and work that absolutely must happen. Rather, I think it’s really important to identify the things that really aren’t that critical, the superfluous things that tend to clutter our to-do lists and add unnecessary stress to our lives. Identify them and embrace the fact that it really is ok to let them go. 

Even when I know I should politely decline a request, I somehow always end up saying yes. I have a hard time turning down favor requests even though I know completing the task will probably leave me stressed and feeling taxed. Because I don’t want to disappoint anyone. But the thing is, I think I overestimate how disappointed the requestor would be. There is more than one solution to any problem and I don’t have to be it. And no one really expects that of me, anyway. It’s a pressure I put on myself. 

Next time someone asks something of me I am going to take a deep breath and really think about my response. I am going to assess whether engaging in this activity is going to serve me in a positive way, if I have the time to focus on it effectively, and if I think I can add something meaningful. If I can’t answer in the affirmative to all three of those, I am going to try really hard to form that little word I avoid all too often. I am going to say, “No.” 

Can you really get more done by doing less? It sounds counterintuitive, but I’m willing to give it a try. I want to move away from trying to please all of the people all of the time (and therefore probably pleasing no one) and move toward choosing how to allocate my time so that it best serves me, my loved ones, my workplace, and my community. It sounds like a much more peaceful way to approach life, and will probably not only benefit me, but all the people I have to say no to this year.

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