What do you do with people who volunteer you for tasks that you’d rather not do?

  • “Do me a favor, will you? I don’t have anyone to look after the dog.”
  • “What do you mean you don’t you have time to help me paint the house? You’re on vacation.”
  • “Could you make a pan of that delicious lasagna of yours? I’m expecting about thirty people, and I’m such a horrible cook.”
  • “I thought you could be in charge of manning the picnic grill.”

And so on.

An invitation or plea for help is not a summons to appear in court. People who don’t want to attend events to which they are invited have the option of declining. “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to attend.” That’s all that is necessary. Likewise, politeness does not require you to lend your possessions or to feel guilty about wanting them back. Neither are you under an obligation to share your home, professional expertise, or time for the asking. “Call me at the office if you really want my advice.” Or, “Why not hire a handyman to repair that for you?” Or, “Have you thought about getting a caterer?”

      And yet burdening oneself with others’ problems is devilishly easy to do. Why is it common to give in to demands that we know we are going to resent later on? Why do so many people feel guilty about saying no only to find themselves roped into fundraisers, bridal showers, and the like when they’d rather be doing something else?

      They respond because Homo sapiens is a social animal. Coming to the aid of another human being is wired into us and further reinforced through cultural upbringing. In other words we can’t help but want to help—a crying baby, the sick and defenseless, someone bitten by bad luck. So many situations arouse natural sympathy, and our parents raised us to be kind and thoughtful on top of that. But there are limits, especially in today’s world where there are so many demands on one’s attention. It is commendable for one to feel sorry for another’s predicament, but that doesn’t mean you have to fix his or her problem. The issue here is setting boundaries: choosing them, declaring them, and enforcing them. Failing to do so will leave you open to emotional vampires who can drain you of energy and goodwill.

   

   The way to refuse to do something one is not obligated to do is to refuse: “No thank you,” “No, I’m so sorry.” “No, I simply can’t.” “Thank you for asking, but I’m afraid it’s impossible.” Repeat these phrases as often as necessary to wear out the attacker. It is a tactical mistake to ever give a reason for declining. As soon as you flounder about trying to explain, you invite debate about why you won’t do what you are not obligated to do in the first place. Any and all excuses will be countered by suggestions and alternatives to which you will be tempted to make halfhearted excuses that any fool can tell are lies. If you avoid such a trap you should feel relieved, not guilty. The point is that you needn’t if you don’t want to. As for strangers, you are not obligated to converse with every airplane seatmate or taxi driver. “I’m sorry, but I planned to use this time to read,” or sleep, or meditate.

 

     Make your refusals polite, and retreat gracefully but firmly. “I’m sorry, but that day is impossible for me.” Be inexplicable. “It would make things too complicated.” “I’m not up to it, but thank you anyway.” “Thank you for thinking of me.” When you offer no excuse you imply that you’d love to participate or oblige if only it were possible. Just say no. Repeatedly. Once you get the hang of it you will find yourself better able to protect your private time. “I’m so sorry, but I have to finish my errands.” Just keep declining—and enjoy your private time out.

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