Saying “No”

Logically, most of us know that we should be saying “no” far more than we are. Most us want more time, more balance, and more space. We know that saying “no” is an obvious step in the direction of those goals. But why is saying “no” so hard and so painful? What is it about setting that boundary that makes us cringe?

When we operate from our prefrontal cortex (the grown-up part of our brain that’s good at planning, strategizing, and anticipating challenges) it’s easy for us to see where change needs to happen. It’s easy for us to identify areas of our life where a new boundary would be helpful. We can look at our To Do List and the tasks that we take on and easily come up with things that we could take off our plates. Logically, this all makes sense but executing is where the battleground begins.

Once we’ve started something we have a hard time backing out. Once we’ve developed a pattern of saying “yes” we struggle to develop a new pattern. Even if we know intellectually that a new pattern will benefit everyone in the long run.

When we know that we need more “no” in our life, the only way we are going to get there is if we can deconstruct the rationale that got us to the place of overloaded to begin with. The next time someone asks you to take on an additional project or to sit on an extra board or help them through a problem, whatever it may be, we must pause in those moments and ask ourselves what rationale is driving us to accept these requests. It likely sounds something like this:

I should help

It’s the right thing to do (meaning, if I say “no” I’m not being a good person)

I don’t want to disappoint anyone

If I don’t say “yes” there will be a negative consequence (I won’t get anymore clients, I will lose out on work, people won’t trust me, people won’t like me, etc.)

All of these thoughts are incredibly persuasive in the moment. All of these thoughts are also rooted in fear. We worry that if we don’t help, others will judge us. We worry that others will think we’re not a good person or we’re not a team player. We worry that something bad will happen if we don’t follow through on all of these requests.


Sound familiar? Setting boundaries and time management is a huge part of my work with my clients. If you want to change the way you respond to requests and manage your time, grab a free consult and let’s get to work. You deserve better!


Those fear-based thoughts spring from our fight or flight brain that wants us to continue our usual routine of saying “yes” and chasing the endorphins of people pleasing. When we consider saying “no” and deviating from this pattern, our survival brain goes on the defensive. It starts offering to us all the reasons why this new approach will be catastrophic for our lives and our reputations. Knowing this, we must look at all of those fear-based thoughts and challenge them (using our prefrontal cortex).

I should help.

What does that even mean?! How do you know when you should help?! Who decides? Would everyone agree with that?

When we tell ourselves that we “should” help we often get ourselves into scenarios where we’re overloaded and we do a poor job in the end. In fact, it would be more of a service to the person making the request if we actually didn’t help because it’s possible they would find someone with more capacity who could do a better job. In other words, when you find your brain telling you that you should help the exact opposite is typically true: you should not help. Back away! Let them find someone else who will be more engaged and more available for the task.

It’s the right thing to do.

Again, says who?! What does that even? Is it right to help people when you don’t really want to? Isn’t that just dishonesty in a prettier outfit? Besides, when it comes to the “right thing” to do, shouldn’t your wants, needs, and sanity be the primary driver of those decisions?!

I don’t want to disappoint anyone.

The only way we disappoint people is when we overcommit ourselves, overextend ourselves, and do not show up in the manner that the requestor knows we can provide. When we say “yes” even though we mean “no,” we set ourselves on a clear path to likely disappoint not only the requester but other people who have similar requests already sitting on our plates.

Similarly, when we tell ourselves something bad will happen if we don’t say “yes,” it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are likely to take on something that we don’t have capacity for and we do a bad job and create a negative consequence simply by doing a bad job and not being able to show up as our best selves. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

All of these thoughts are red flags that we are setting ourselves up to create the exact opposite result than what we’re wanting. More failure, disappointment, and chaos await us when we allow those thoughts to drive our actions.

Rather than allowing ourselves to be persuaded by these thoughts, we must remain rooted and grounded in our commitment to ourselves, our balance, and our happiness. We must reconnect with our prefrontal cortex that knows we already have enough on our plate, we’re already overextended, and some things just have to start coming off the list. Allow our prefrontal cortex to make those decisions ahead of time and go into the day knowing that any new request will be met with a simple “no”.

That is power.

That is having your own back.

That is putting yourself in a position to show up as your best self every time and ensuring that when people rely on you, you will have the time and energy to rise up and meet those expectations because you’re caring for yourself first.


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Finding Your Voice

Have you ever found yourself fantasizing about that conversation you want to have with your boss (or partner, or client, or staff)? The REAL conversation you want to have? The one where you are completely honest and say all those things you have only whispered under your breath?

As attorneys, we are hired to advocate and be the knowledge voices of our clients–why do we struggle to advocate for ourselves?

During our lives…

We learn to walk.

We learn to ride bicycles.

We learn to cook for ourselves.

We learn how to navigate new cities.

Our lives contain so many examples of how we have overcome failure to learn new things. Babies fall repeatedly as they learn how to walk. We all had a few bumps and bruises as we learn how to ride a bike without training wheels. I conducted numerous pathetic and indigestible kitchen experiments whilst learning how to cook like my mom. I nearly died the first time I drove in a big city.

When I was in high school, I moved to the state capital to work as a page in the House of Representatives. It was the first time I had lived on my own and the first time I had to learn how to navigate a big city. I remember the first few times I made a wrong turn onto downtown one way streets. Where I came from, we didn’t have one way streets! We barely even had stoplights! I wasn’t used to paying attention to those things and I quickly learned all the new rules that come with inner city driving. I didn’t give up and decide living in the city wasn’t for me. I just did it. I kept trying and learning and not letting the fear about dying in a fiery car crash keep me stuck.

But isn’t everything else in life the same way?

I often find that my clients want to stand up for themselves and advocate for what they want–better balance, more flexibility, different work, a different supervisor, etc. They struggle to work up the courage to show up and ask for what they want because it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes, it’s because they’ve had bad experiences in the past where their honest requests were met with criticism. Whatever the case may be, they struggle with the discomfort of not being good at using their voice in an authentic and vulnerable way.

What we fail to see is that we are not going to be “good” at using our voices right out of the gate.

We are going to make some wrong turns and have some experiences that might feel like driving into oncoming traffic. But that doesn’t mean we have failed. It simply means we are learning something new.

Today, commit to using your voice in a way that is authentic to you–ask for what you want, say what you mean, say “no” when you want to.

It’s not going to feel good.

You’re going to be uncomfortable.

With practice, it will get easier.

Allow yourself opportunities to learn and fine tune that skill so that in the future, when it really matters, you won’t hesitate because it will be as natural as riding a bike (or navigating one way streets).

One of the things I do with my clients is develop a plan and strategize around asking for what they want. We experiment and practice with different methods until we find an approach that works best for them. If you struggle to say “no” or ask for what you really want, invest in developing that talent. Work with me and start living in your voice (schedule a free consultation now and reconnect with your voice and your power).


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Being Authentic

When I was in private practice, I had a client that called me all the time. Constantly. He would call to talk through new ideas. He would call every time he wondered about some new aspect of the project. He called to vent. He called just to chat. He called when he was frustrated with his team and other times he called to let me know how happy he was how things were going. It was constant. How I showed up in that relationship changed everything about how I set boundaries in my relationships, personally and professionally.

I got in the habit of ignoring most of his calls unless I had the time or was in a good space to chat with him. I would often send him brief follow-up emails —

Saw I missed your call, I’m tied up for most of the day but if you send me a note, I can get back to you between meetings.

Which is really code for: If you’re calling just to chat, I’m busy. If you’re calling for legal support, I’m available. Even when I ignored his calls, I was irritated and distracted afterwards — Why does he DO THAT?! I’m not his buddy, I’m his lawyer!! (But dealing with the peccadillos of other humans is another challenge I had to sort out later on. Another story for another time.)

I didn’t ignore his calls and incessant messaging because I didn’t like him, it was because the calls were unnecessary and inefficient. They interrupted whatever else I was working on and they didn’t further our primary goal which was to GET THE JOB DONE. Usually, he was just calling to vent or talk through something. He liked to work through things verbally. As an introvert, I do not. I believed strongly that by screening his calls, I was allowing myself the opportunity to do a better job than I would if I allowed myself to be constantly interrupted.

After a while, I started to feel guilty about constantly putting him off. My brain was badgering me: He is going to get upset with you…He is going to think you don’t care…He is going to complain about your service…He’s going to say you are always unavailable.

One day, I gave in to those nagging thoughts.

He called me. I declined the call. Then he IM’d me about 5 minutes prior to my next meeting: Give me a call when you have a second. I decide to call him. No, rather, I concluded that I should call him. So, I called him. I called him because I believed that I should and I was irritated about it. When he answered, I instantly regretted it. I was not engaged; I was defensive, abrupt, and annoyed. It was evident. After the call, I felt terrible. I was everything that I was trying not to be in that relationship!

After thinking through the exchange, I realized that acting from “should” never yields me the results that I want. Forcing myself to do things when I’m not in the right mindset, when I’m feeling rushed, or when I’m acting from a negative emotion, never drives me to act in a way that I’m proud of.

Instead, I choose to believe that no one is going to fire me for being busy and I can ask people to interact with me in a way that is most effective and efficient for me (boundaries, anyone?). People might not like this approach and people might get frustrated but I am committed to being available in a manner that allows me to show up at my best and I would rather have people frustrated with my communication approach than be frustrated with me for being a jerk.

I choose to believe that I never have to answer a call if I don’t want to.

I choose to act when I want to and not because I believe I HAVE to.

I choose not to concede my schedule and my time to anyone other than myself.

Feel like your days are at the mercy of someone else? Schedule a free consult and get support to set (and execute) better boundaries.

I anticipated the possibility that he might be put off by this approach so I scheduled regular, brief check-in meetings that provided him an opportunity to talk about whatever was moving him that day and I could anticipate that interruption. After the project concluded, the client raved to everyone in the company and at my firm about our partnership. That’s how it is supposed to work, he told everyone. Not because I was at his beck and call 24/7 but because I put in the work to show up as my best in that relationship despite my discomfort and nagging worries.

It’s not about pushing people away. It’s about honoring yourself and your needs.

It’s about being committed enough to the relationship to be honest in the moment — no, I don’t want to talk right now — so that you can show up as your best in that relationship. It’s about being so committed to the relationship that you are willing to do something unpopular. In the end, it’s about being willing to be your authentic self in all of your relationships and letting go of any other notion of how you are “supposed” to act in relationships.

In sum, when we show up authentically, relationships flourish.


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Boundaries

Most of the attorneys that I work with do not believe that it is possible for them to create happiness within their current environment. They come to me unhappy and overworked. They believe that the only way things are going to get better is if the firm finally changes. Or if they leave. Part of the work that I do with my clients is helping them to start setting boundaries and flexing their “no” muscle.

Saying, “No, ” is always an option available to us to make more time for ourselves. To make time for the things that actually matter to us. So that we can find some space and happiness. We know, logically, that if we want more time, more balance, and more peace, boundaries are part of the deal but we are reluctant to flex those muscles because we fear the consequences.

There is a difference between not knowing how to resolve a problem and being afraid to implement solutions you know exist.

When my clients consider the possibility of not responding to an email at 8:30pm on a Wednesday night, it doesn’t seem like a real option. Their brains tell them that those kinds of boundaries will get them fired, demoted, judged, and “into trouble.”

Possibly.

We set boundaries because we know what is good for us; that doesn’t mean others are going to like it.

But let’s explore that. My clients that are learning to set boundaries and say “no” continue to meet their hourly obligations to the extent those obligations are clear. They continue to do good work, often times even better work. They continue to be a team player. And with these changes their attitude and energy change dramatically as well. Is it reasonable to believe that a firm is going to fire someone performing in this manner simply because they are not willing to be a doormat, on call 24/7? It’s possible. But it’s also possible that the firm will swallow that pill even though they don’t like it.

If this resonates with you, grab a free session and commit today to start living differently.

Furthermore, when we tell ourselves that setting these boundaries, pushing back and saying “no” is going to cause us to get fired, I don’t believe that result differs from the alternative. I work with attorneys all day long, every day. Attorneys who are burnt out and unhappy. Attorneys who have implemented the rage quit or attorneys who are tap dancing on the edge of it. What I submit is this:

If we continue the path that we have historically been on, where we ignore our boundaries and forget how to say “no,” the ultimate result is that we leave. We leave burnt out, unhappy, and disillusioned, believing that practicing law is just not right for us. That path may take several years to trek but ultimately the lack of boundaries ends with a sad exit.

In contrast, we can choose a path where we speak our truth. We’re honest about our availability, we set clear boundaries and make time for what’s really important to us. If that path were to result in us being terminated, we must also ask:

Is that so much worse than the alternative?

How long do you think you could flex those “no” muscles, set boundaries, stand up for yourself, and make more time for what’s really important to you before the firm steps in and decides that they no longer want to employ you? Six months? A year? What would that time be like for you? To have more time, more balance, to have the ability to workout and spend time with your family instead of constantly feeling on the edge and on call. Wouldn’t that six months or one year of balance and peace serve you in a much better manner than those years of burnt out frustration?

The ending is the same most certainly but the person at the end of either of those journeys is absolutely not the same person. And the sacrifices each of them would make during those journeys could not be more different. The choice is yours. What do you have to lose?


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“Yes” Women

Impostor syndrome: “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.”

Many of the women that I work with suffer from various manifestations of imposter syndrome. Recently, I have noticed that many of my clients “handle” their imposter syndrome by slipping to a persistent helper role.

Imposter syndrome persistently tells us that we are a “fake” and that we will be found out; that eventually everyone will realize that we don’t belong and they will get rid of us. One tendency to combat these fears is to make yourself irreplaceable. For many women, this takes the form of caretaker or helper.

I recently had a client who expressed how important it was to her to always been seen as reliable and someone that others could always count on. She was always offering to support new projects and teams even when she knew that she didn’t have the time or capacity. More often than not, she would come to our sessions operating on fumes. Completely exhausted and frustrated that no one can do anything without her. She was burnt out and wanted to change this pattern.

As we explored her patterns, we came to understand that this was completely a mess of her own making. She consciously took on more than she was able and was reluctant to give up that part of her practice. On the one hand, she knew that it was making her miserable but at the same time, she didn’t want to give up that important position. She didn’t want people to gripe if she said no to work. She didn’t want people to judge her if she scaled back and she imagined a parade of horrible comments she believed her co-workers would make if she stopped helping everyone. She wanted to be needed. She wanted to be an essential player on every team. It made her feel safe and secure.

This is what imposter syndrome does! It creates patterns of coping with our fears of inadequacy. We craft ways to “cover up” our perceived shortcomings to keep our secret safe. In my client’s instance, she was bending over backwards to be available to anyone for any project, at any moment. She was constantly cancelling personal trips and social gatherings to jump on new projects. It had become part of her persona and it was what made her feel like she belonged–it helped to soothe the fears of inadequacy. It silenced the negative rantings in her head — they couldn’t possibly fire her even if they discovered her inadequacies, too many people NEEDED her!

The patterns that accompany imposter syndrome are not sustainable. It is neither fulfilling nor rewarding to be at everyone’s beck and call. While it filled my client with a momentary sense of pride, more often it made her angry and frustrated. She felt trapped and out of control. She believed she had nowhere to go but to a full-fledged, out-of-nowhere explosive resignation. But in order to avoid that meltdown, my client needed to take a hard look at her helper tendencies and invest in making some changes.

What is it costing you to say yes to work and projects that you really don’t want to do?

What is really motivating you to take on all these things?

What would it get you if you were better able to set boundaries?

What would it be like to be able to unplug and enjoy your personal life?

Changing how we think of ourselves and how we show up in our lives is painful. Facing the fears associated with setting boundaries is hard work — it is FAR easier to just keeping saying yes to every man, woman, child, and dog that want your time and energy. The only way to truly make the shift is to first get really clear on what your current pattern is costing you and what it will cost you in the long-term if you fail to make a change.

Are you sacrificing your personal life and relationships because you are afraid to say “no” at work? What is that costing you?

Some day, you will leave that job and your friends and family will still be there. Your body, your health, your mental well-being will still be with you. Are you investing in those as well? Is your pattern costing you all those things that will remain once this job is done?

Our patterns are persuasive and convincing. It’s easy to believe we are doing the right things. Those tendencies likely created your immediate success, after all. In order to break this cycle, we have to open our eyes and see that these patterns are costing us more than they are getting us. We have to start believing that if we remain in place, we will destroy everything. Because it’s true. We have to see the forest for the trees. We have to do the hard work.

In order to change we have to understand the cost-benefits of staying where we are versus evolving. If you need support deconstructing your current patterns, grab a free session and start re-investing in your own wellbeing. After all, it’s just a job…

Over-Apologizers Anonymous

“Apologizing when we have done something wrong is a real strength, but compulsive apologizing presents as a weakness at work and in personal relationships.” — Dr. Tara Swart, neuroscientist, Medicine Revived

I believe that all relationships should be two-sided. A push and pull, yin and yang, ebb and flow: balanced. When we over apologize, we take ownership for things that are not our own. The relationship becomes one-sided, where one person is always in the right and the other is always in the wrong.

What types of relationships fit into that dynamic?

Victim/villain comes to mind…

However you want to characterize it, over apologizing leaves no room for evolution by either party. The victim hones her skills at subservience, silence, and carrying burdens that are not her own. The villain hones her skills at skirting responsibility, blaming others and excuse-making. Both parties lose the opportunity to hone their voice and self-confidence, to develop the skills that accompany a healthy relationship: trust, partnership, humility, honesty, and respect.

Over apologizing is often the easy route. It’s easier to take on all the blame than it is to stand up for yourself. It’s easier to believe that it was all your fault than to examine the things you did right. This victim mentality is pervasive and can seep into all aspects of your life if left unchecked.

So why do we over apologize?

As I mentioned above, the primary reason we do it is that it’s easier. It is the path of least resistance. We don’t want to do the hard thing and speak our truth. We don’t want to make waves. We are biologically programmed to avoid conflict after all!

Therein lies the second reason that we do this: we don’t want the other person to think poorly of us. We don’t want to be seen as a muckraker, argumentative, or god-forbid a human with feelings. Buried deeper within this rationale is that we are trying to control how the other person thinks of us. We want them to like us. We want them to think we are a team player. We have thick skin. We don’t make trouble.

To be clear: We. Are. Being. Manipulative.

Changing what we think, feel, say, and do because we want something to think about us in a certain way is absolutely manipulation in its noblest form.

So not only are we not being authentic by hiding our truth, we are often showing up in a manner than is inconsistent with our values and character. When considered in this light, over apologizing becomes a bit more distasteful.

Further, when we wrongly apologize, we are taking ownership for something. We are implying that there was something overlooked. Something we could have and should have gotten right the first time. Is that true? Could you have foreseen that the client was going to change their mind? That the contractor was going to cancel last minute after you made your husband come home from work for the appointment? Before you consider uttering the words “I’m sorry,” first get clear on what your role was in the “problem.” If there is no clear failure on your behalf — stop talking.

We mustn’t allow ourselves to take ownership for things that are not our own. Rather, we must strive to share the experiences than should be SHARED between all parties. Recognize the discomfort of the situation for all parties but do not apologize for it, as if you created it. Acknowledge that things didn’t go as well as they could have but don’t pretend that the circumstances were masterminded by you and therefore you must apologize.

Sometimes things go wrong. That is life. Unless you are some secret deity, stop taking ownership for it.

Instead of apologizing, try on these options:

Good catch, I hadn’t considered that angle.

Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

Thanks for starting the meeting when my appointment ran long.

Is now a good time to chat? (Instead of “Sorry to bother you…”)

A few things I am taking away from this experience are….

This must be really frustrating for you too.

I can understand why you might be angry about this.

I would like to add… (Instead of “I’m sorry but…”)

Wow, this is really frustrating.

I appreciate your perspective, but I don’t understand why…

Whoops!

Use I’m sorry only if you have truly done something wrong that falls squarely on your shoulders.

And, most importantly, only use it when you really mean it. “I’m sorry” should be a phrase that, when it comes out of your mouth, others appreciate it and know it is genuine because it is not something you throw around lightly.

Chronic over apologizer? If the above concepts make you uncomfortable, grab a free session and start trimming “I’m sorry” out of your standard vocabulary.


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I “Should” Help, I’m an Attorney

The delightfully irritating word “should.”

Should is such a worthless word. The word “should” only matters when we are talking about something factual, provable, demonstrable. My coffee pot should turn on when I plug it in. My email should transmit when I click send. The light should turn on when I flip the switch.

“Should” makes sense in this scenario because these things are designed to operate in a certain way. There’s a manual that supports your conclusion that these machines are supposed to act in a certain way. You bought them for a very specific purpose, to perform a very clear task. We know what this thing is supposed to do: it is widely understood and accepted.

That usage has no translation to human beings. There is no manual, there is no widely understood and accepted understanding of how we are supposed to act.

You can argue religious mores and social norms all you like; they are not universally held or agreed upon.

But yet here we are, constantly telling ourselves what we “should” be doing. How we are supposed to act.

As a practicing lawyer, I often find myself in situations where people that I love want me to help them sort out their legal struggles. (For background, my specialty is in ERISA, taxes, DOL/IRS funsies.) In all honesty, my utility in helping family and friends with their legal issues is fairly limited. File a lawsuit? No thanks, my secretary knows more about that than I do (she also supports a busy litigator).  It’s difficult for non-lawyers to appreciate that lawyers, like doctors, have their own unique specialties. Just as you would not ask a gynecologist to opine on your ear ache, asking an ERISA attorney to advise you on your divorce is ill-advised (for all parties).

But yet, so many of my clients struggle with saying no.

They have a hard time admitting that they don’t know all aspects of the law. They have a hard time saying “no” to their loved ones who want support for their legal challenges. They know enough to be dangerous and can probably “figure it out.”

So many of my clients back themselves into a corner, agreeing to do things that they don’t REALLY want to do, things that they shouldn’t do, things that ask them to color outside the lines. They agree to do it because they feel like they “should” help as much as they can. But then as they settle into the work, they are fuming. How could they have asked me to do this? How rude of them to expect that I have time for this? They should be paying someone to do this (not me!).

Instead of being honest with the people in our lives, we mislead them and mischaracterize our interest in helping. In other words, we lie to them and then we get angry for having to do the work. We pretend like these other people forced us into this predicament. Why? Because we SHOULD help.

What would it be like to have an honest and authentic conversation with these people instead of lying to them? What would it be like to believe

I can help them to the best of my ability without taking on this project for them. I can support from the sidelines.

This goes for all areas of our lives where we struggle to say NO to those we love.

We want them to love us, admire us, believe in us.

We are so willing to trade our own truth for the possibility of them thinking about us in a certain way. This is really very simple manipulation! But here’s the truth, you can’t control what they think of you. So it’s a totally FUTILE manipulation attempt.

What’s more, you can decide what you want to make it mean when you say “no.” You can choose to believe that you are letting them down and that you SHOULD help them. Or you can choose to believe that loving them and  being honest with them is your greatest contribution.

You can support your loved ones and not agree to do things you don’t want to do.

Seek authenticity and honesty in all your relationships. It is okay to say “No” when you want to say no.

You don’t need a good reason for it and you don’t need to explain yourself. There is no manual you must follow, you get to do whatever you want because you are a human. Period.

What is the upside of doing that thing you didn’t want to do? How much fun is it to fume about the project every step of the way and beat yourself up for saying yes? How is that serving the relationship?

As lawyers, we have a lot of experience and knowledge that we can offer those around us. With that ability comes the need to set clear boundaries and honor yourself by learning when to say no.

Invest in your relationships and invest in your own integrity. Your relationships will thrive because of it.

Having a challenging relationship? Need help saying no? I’m free if you are.


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