[Editor's note: When we shared 'Self-care' is not enough to fix how much moms are burnt out, the response was overwhelming. It hit a nerve, as mothers from across the globe expressed their collective burnout. We heard two things: 1). I feel that way too, and 2). How do we fix this? In response, Motherly introduces our new editorial franchise offering expert-based solutions that address the very real burnout that mothers are facing. It is not going to be easy to make this better, but if we take small steps and work together, we can impact serious change.]
After a full day of work and being with my kids, I am exhausted. It is not an unfamiliar feeling, as I know many mothers—close friends and clients—echo similar sentiments. It is a common experience that women are exhausted at the end of the day. Many describe it as being "touched out" and others are experiencing the impacts of burn out.
Then, a text comes in from a dear friend, asking me for help.
"Just say yes, Tracy," my internal dialogue tells me. "Don't let others down. You don't want to upset your friend. It won't take that long."
This dialogue is a strong one—it tells me to ignore what I am feeling at this moment and it tells me to care for others without considering what I need.
So I plow forward and give what the other person is asking. Afterward, I collapse even further into my bed, none the more rested than when I first laid down.
Women often care for others before we care for ourselves. We are used to being the primary caregivers, so naturally, we put others first.
We are trying to balance heavier loads than ever before. Work. Children. Friendships. Household. Relationships. Family. Our own interests and well-being. It becomes impossible to manage all of the demands that are placed on us. And yet we keep caring and giving to others.
There are many signs that you tend to be a caregiver and put others first:
- You don't say no to others as you feel guilty
- You don't suggest something or do something your way
- You don't ask your partner for help but easily offer to help them
- You constantly feel drained and tired from others' requests.
- You describe yourself as a "doer." You thrive on doing things, instead of allowing yourself to be in the moment. As a "doer," you are busy thinking of the next moment, and you feel filled up when you care for others.
- You hold yourself to a high standard and keep caring for others because you hate letting others down. And, you might even begin to feel resentful over time.
But I have to ask: What does caring for others give you?
Many will say they don't want to upset others, they feel obligated to give to others, and they feel responsible for how others feel. But caring for others is a way to avoid feeling negative issues in your relationships. Some of my clients say they don't want to let someone down. And sometimes caring can be a form of avoiding what you are genuinely struggling with.
For myself, it took me a while to realize that by ensuring I was always available for others (including my husband at bath time or at the slightest moment when a child fussed), I was feeding my self-worth. The rules in my mind sounded something like this, "If I am always available to my friends, then I am worthy. If I show up for others whenever they need me, then I am good enough."
But the challenge is that caring in this way for a period of time can be unhealthy, especially when you are maxed out—as we often are in motherhood.
That text message I responded to? I started to feel resentful towards my friend for needing me. But when I step back from that moment, it is not my friend that is responsible for me saying yes in response to her text—it is me.
I am responsible for my choices.
We need to talk about a word that often sounds dirty to many of my clients: boundaries.
Every client or couple that shows up in my office talks about difficulties with boundaries in some way. It is a word with a lot of impact on the wellness of you and your relationships. I like to think of boundaries like the elephant in the room—we all have them, they are always there, but we often don't talk about them.
If you identify with the challenge of saying no and being a caregiver, here are nine steps to help you learn how to say no, mama:
1. Tune in to when it is too much.
We have early signs that tell us we are taking on too much, and that we are exhausted. For some, these could be bodily experiences, like feeling tension in our shoulders or feeling exhausted all the time. Others might experience physiological symptoms like shortness of breath, dizziness or difficulties sleeping, or emotional symptoms like anxiety, frustration or irritability with your children).
A strong sign of having a heavy load is that you are viewing others negatively or feel like others are taking advantage of you.
2. Identify what giving to others is costing you.
Giving to others is a beautiful quality, and we need people like you. But there are people in your life that require you to be at your best—your children need you.
The analogy I like to use is a cell phone battery. You only have so much battery power to go about your day. What will you use it for each day? What is most important to you?
For some, making a list and prioritizing this helps to identify what needs to stay and what you need to say no to. Remember to acknowledge the cumulative effect of multiple small gives. Texting back all of your friends in one day and responding to messages on social media might be too much. It's okay to take a step back and pause.
3. You are not responsible for other's thoughts and feelings.
I want you to read that last sentence one more time.
So often I hear from clients, "I could never say no, that would hurt their feelings." Yes, saying no might hurt their feelings. But you are not responsible for that.
One friend might be excited that you are prioritizing yourself, and the other may feel hurt—it is then their responsibility to cope with their own feelings.
We all have our thoughts, feelings, opinions, desires, wishes and values. We are separate people. And it is our responsibility to cope with our inside experiences. You cannot control how others feel. Instead, we are responsible for how we communicate and say no to other people.
4. Say no.
You can say no in many kind and caring ways.
If you whisper your no, the other person will not hear you, and will likely push again.
If you scream, "Can't you see how overwhelmed I am?!" (a more aggressive remark) or mutter, "Yeah sure, 'I'll help you just after I change two diapers and do a million other things," (a passive-aggressive remark), it may not be the kindest way to express that you are overwhelmed.
An assertive, kind and caring ''no'' sounds like, "I know you need my help right now (empathize with the other person). However, I am not able to give you help (state what you need). Next time I would like to be able to help you (clarify for next time)."
Notice that your ''no'' does not include an apology. You do not need to apologize for having a boundary. You have a right to say no.
5. Take the broken record approach.
Remember, if you are a caregiver others will not be used to you saying no. Whether it's a coworker asking you to help with a project, a boss calling you after working hours, or a family member asking you to do a task, these people are likely not used to hearing you set boundaries.
They might even say, "But it 'won't take that much time," or "Just this time." If you change your no, you teach others that they can push and make you change your mind. Once you have decided to say no, maintain your boundary and repeat it. "'I'm not able to do this," over and over again.
6. Slow down.
Life moves so quickly. In a few clicks, I have enough items showing up to my front door to dress my newborn, entertain my toddler and host a play-date.
I can be in contact with 10 people at a time.
My child is asking for a snack, while I'm nursing my newborn, while also texting a friend to let them know I'm going to be late for our playdate.
Sound familiar? We move so quickly all day long.
Setting boundaries and learning to say no will take you slowing down. Before responding to someone's request, consider giving yourself some time away to reflect on what the other person is asking you, and whether you truly have the energy to provide them with.
Often, the answer is no, but you need space first to find that no.
7. Let go of your guilt.
Guilt is a powerful emotion, and mothers are particularly prone to experiencing it. Our society and social media place tremendous pressure on mothers—to have it all, to do it all, and to get it all perfect. It is no wonder that when you begin to prioritize your own wellness that you feel guilty.
The challenge with guilt is that the more you avoid doing something out of guilt, the more you will feel guilty. It becomes a vicious cycle. If you feel guilty for saying no, I encourage you to begin to say no!
8. Become your dearest friend.
What would you say to your closest friend if she said no to helping you? And could you say this message to yourself?
Self-compassion is showing kindness and caring towards ourselves for our struggle. If you struggle with saying no, try acknowledging the struggle and then allowing yourself to say whatever it is to yourself that you would say to your dearest friend. You might even come up with a mantra or statement and put this somewhere to remind yourself during times of saying no.
9. Lean on others that also respect your boundaries.
Fill yourself up with those who are understanding when you say no. If you are someone that tends to help others, you likely don't ask for help often. When we are busy giving to other people, we minimize our own needs. By doing this, others don't know that we need help
But we all need help and support at some point.
So what might you ask for help with? Maybe you start by asking for 20 minutes between meal time and bedtime to yourself. Perhaps you take an hour to yourself on the weekend. Perhaps instead of trying to problem solve something on your own, you reach out for advice. Or, you let others know how you are feeling in this moment.
Dear mama, the extreme exhaustion of this stage is real. Taking more "me time" is not enough—and we need to reconsider how we are in our relationships. We are hard-wired to connect with others. It's important to us. So re-evaluating your boundaries and learning to put yourself first can be incredibly challenging – but this is key when life's demands are changing in front of you moment-to-moment.
Remember that while so often our children bring us joy, this season in life is also incredibly hard. And you are doing your best.