Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

Have you ever heard yourself say, “Sure, I’m happy to help!” – but all the while, the deeper part of you was fuming and despairing with thoughts like:

  • “I’m too overwhelmed right now.”
  • “It’s unfair that I’m always being asked. It’s someone else’s turn to help.”
  • “I wish I hadn’t answered that phone call.”
  • “I always help others and never get anything in return.”
  • “I’m so burned out.”
  • “I wish I could drop everything and catch a flight to Bali.”
  • “I just want some time for myself; is that too much to ask?”

Now we all want to help, to give, to serve, to be a dependable team player. These are extremely valuable parts of our identity, especially if we’re a leader.

But when saying “yes” on the outside while screaming “no” on the inside becomes a pattern, it feels awful. Ironically, it chips away at our ability to help with effectiveness. It can lead to chronic resentment, avoidance, burnout, ill health (mental and physical), and alienation. At the extreme, we begin to feel like our life is not our own, that we’re captive to our fear of letting others down.

Have I just sort of described you? If so, please know, first, that I feel you! This is a road I’ve walked. Second, know that you have my genuine respect. You’re likely a huge-hearted, resourceful, responsible, generous, and caring person. You likely enjoy helping others, at least a lot of the time. You’re “good people,” as they say.

And? You deserve peace. Also space, protection, freedom, and time. You deserve to feel like your life is your own. You deserve to not feel habitually conflicted and frayed and overextended and frustrated. You deserve to feel like your “yes’s” are given from a place of abundance rather than chronic depletion.

If it’s hard or impossible for you to imagine yourself saying, simply, “No, I can’t help you,” let me offer the following tips. And if having better boundaries is something you’d like to resolve for 2023, maybe one or some of these can be starting points.

EIGHT TIPS FOR BUILDING BETTER BOUNDARIES

1. Give yourself time before you commit. As in: “Hey, got your note requesting help on that project. I’m going to think on it a bit. Will get back to you tomorrow!” Then, take time to honestly assess whether saying “yes” will tip your emotional scale too far towards resentment and/or burnout.

2. Remember that care and boundaries go together. Brené Brown’s research has shown that the most compassionate people are also those who have the clearest boundaries. They know what’s okay and not okay for them, and they communicate that clearly. In the long run, honoring your limits makes you less resentful, and more powerfully empathic and helpful.

3. Schedule regular times to stop and connect with yourself. Habitually prioritizing others over yourself can make you feel disconnected from your own needs, values, and limits. It’s so helpful to engage in a brief morning or evening routine where you can sit quietly. Perhaps you stretch, or journal, or meditate, or read something inspirational. It builds self-trust, self-awareness, and gives your frayed nervous system a breather.

4. Ask yourself, “Why is this important?” Sometimes we do things that aren’t important or valuable, but that we think will keep up appearances or prevent someone from being mad at us. Or maybe our performance needle is permanently fixed on the “hyper-achieve” setting. If something doesn’t align with your true values and responsibilities (whether personal or professional), does it really need to be done?

5. Remember that saying “no” can be a gift. Sometimes, it really is someone else’s turn to help out, and if you always say “yes,” you deprive them of that growth opportunity. Sometimes, the person requesting help really does need to find their own solution. And sometimes, things need to be allowed to fall apart without you so they can be rebuilt in a way that doesn’t drain you.

6. Stop following the superheroes on social media. It’s depressing to scroll through your favorite social media feed, and only see people who appear to have it all together. It puts subtle pressure on you to say “yes” to more tasks so that your work, your relationships, your appearance, your home (etc.) can be perfect, too. Instead, follow people who are gloriously real and imperfect, and who offer ways to fight stress/burnout.

7. Ask yourself, “Are these expectations realistic?” Expectations (internal and external) can be healthy and motivating. They can also be completely unreasonable. If you feel pressured to say “yes” to it all, ask yourself, “Whose expectations am I fulfilling?” “Is this realistic? Sustainable?” And remember: You cannot create more time, but you can delegate. You can ask for help. Or you can decide it’s simply not worth the added stress.

8. Teach people how to treat you. If you don’t clearly communicate your limits, you can expect people to run roughshod over them. It brings peace of mind and self-trust when you’re able to say, for example: “It’s important to me that you honor my need for downtime, so please don’t text or email me with work requests while I’m on vacation.”

Simple and easy, right? Ha. Exactly none of this is easy. Learning to care for yourself and honor your limits is a lifelong journey. May 2023 bring you a few steps further along that path.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.