A Better You | Frenzy Free

Feeling overwhelmed? Here’s how to say no to others and yes to yourself.

By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT

Everyone would agree that the year’s end is a difficult time. It usually involves frantic list making, wrapping up the fall season’s dance programs, and facing increased family and social commitments. And then there’s coming to terms with what did and did not happen in the business plan for the year. If that isn’t a recipe for hyperventilating and an impending sense of doom, I don’t know what is.

“Just say no” is a familiar mantra against drug use, yet how many of us are addicted to the adrenaline surge of deadlines and the endorphin rush of people-pleasing? As a businessperson, my goal has been to always give lagniappe to my clients. I learned this French concept from business owners in my native New Orleans. Lagniappe means “a little extra something.” That means giving your clients more service, more friendliness—to dote on them in a sincere manner. It’s a sure-fire win in business. But where does it stop? Here are some ideas on how to tend to business and still enjoy a rewarding holiday time. We’ll boil it down into boundaries and self-sabotage issues.

Boundaries typically fall into two categories: personal and work related. Unfortunately, in the arts world, where what I call “dual relationships” are common, these two often become intertwined. Dual relationships happen when we become friends with or emotionally attached to our employees, colleagues, and clients. We want to provide meals, rides, and chore relief for sick co-workers, or help with carpools and babysitting for special students.

The key here is to differentiate lagniappe from charity and responsibility so that a shift of dependence in others doesn’t become a burden to you. Learn to recognize potential conflicts of interest before the relationship starts. Know the limits of what you can realistically deliver, and if possible, make a written policy to avoid disappointing those who need your help as well as yourself. Email lists are helpful in keeping everyone posted about health news or when organizing an assistance network for a sick or heartbroken person. I admire the preschool rules I hear about from my clients, which fine parents for every minute they’re late to pick up a child. Preschools know boundaries.

Feeling guilty about not coming through for someone is like putting on boots of lead—sure to slow you down. Of course, in extreme circumstances, such as a death in the family or catastrophic illness, letting others into the loop can lessen your load enough that you can do those labors of love. For those non-catastrophic times, decide what your boundaries will be.

For instance, in my practice, I allow limited email and phone consultations outside of office times when necessary. However, sometimes a client doesn’t understand that I cannot be responsible for wakeup calls and hour-by-hour physical meltdown consultations. So I have a protocol: I often use practice advisors—friends and colleagues in similar private practice settings, or former clients who were mentors in my life and can offer me objective viewpoints—to decide how to approach clients who have unrealistic expectations of personalized medical care.

I encourage small business owners to use business advisors. They can lessen the frustration of dealing with needy clients and give a third-party perspective about what is feasible in terms of service. (A nonprofit, national organization that specializes in small business advising is SCORE—Service Corps of Retired Executives.) Sometimes just talking to an advisor can create a dynamic change that will then allow you to move into the next phase of untangling a mess.

Often the most misunderstood boundaries are the ones we hold with ourselves. We may prefer to follow the path of least resistance, avoiding unpleasant confrontations; consequently we do not set limits on what we will tolerate and take on. This behavior often leads to resentment because we fail to identify the true source of our distress. The perpetrators are not the “others” who force us to take on more and more responsibilities, but ourselves, when we refuse to set limits.

Often the most misunderstood boundaries are the ones we hold with ourselves. We may prefer to follow the path of least resistance; consequently we do not set limits on what we will tolerate.

And sometimes we are enthusiastic and exuberant, wanting to be everything to all people, which often leads to “time-debt.” Time-debting behavior is seen in people who constantly run late or don’t show up after making many promises to too many people. What starts as a promise turns into a series of disappointments. This is a potential career-limiting move, since others will move away from an unreliable you.

Both of these scenarios point to lack of understanding of how long things take to get done as well as the inability to acknowledge our own limits.

Take heart—putting the reins on runaway overbooking doesn’t have to squelch your productivity and joie de vivre. I surprised even myself when I added writing books, producing DVDs, and earning a doctorate to my already busy life. But I did have to learn tricks. Learning the limits of self-discipline requires trial and error. No one is perfect, so give yourself a break.

Look in the mirror and repeat after me: “I can change only myself, not others.” But to change a behavior, first you have to identify it. This is the idea behind mindfulness. Spend a week—OK, four days since you’re pressed for time—noticing all the times you add to your to-do list without really being invested in those activities. The idea isn’t to promote the “I/me/mine” movement, it’s to fully engage in and commit to what we’re agreeing to do.

Being overwhelmed scatters us. It keeps us from focusing on what we need to do to achieve the success we seek. Getting a grip on overbooking behavior can mean the difference in coping in the short term and achieving our goals over the long term.

Once we’ve decided what is meaningful to us, prioritized our interest areas, examined our motives, and resolved to forgo the unnecessary, the question becomes “What’s stopping me?” In his recent book, Excuses Begone! How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits, Wayne Dyer offers ideas to help put less-than-useful behavior in perspective and plant the seed of change. He lists 18 excuses that keep us from doing all that we can for a fulfilling life.

One technique he recommends is to recite affirmations to yourself just before you go to sleep, allowing the brain to assimilate the desired effect during sleep. We are often overwhelmed by fears of not accomplishing everything we’d like to and frustrated when we can’t find time for the things that are important to us. Dyer recommends identifying your excuses and reversing them with a positive affirmation. Stir up as much feeling as you can muster for best effect.

Going a step farther is author Noah St. John, in Permission to Succeed. He believes that success is more naturally driven than failure because in nature success is crucial to ensure the continuation of the species. He says the brain responds better to questions than to statements (the usual format for affirmations) and that the brain is very good at negative self-talk (“Why am I so dumb?”). He advises “re-forming” the brain through positive self-talk in the form of “why” questions, which he calls “afformations.” He states that “Why?” is a motivating question to the brain, a command to seek an answer. His afformations concentrate on strengths, even if imagined, rather than deficits, using questions such as “Why am I so attractive?” or “Why am I presented with so many opportunities?”

Examining and working on your boundaries and practicing positive self-talk may take some practice, but why not start now? By January 1, 2010, you could be A Better You.

I have faith in you.

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