A friend of mine lives right down the street from her mother.
They have a good relationship, and they’ve become closer since the woman’s father passed away a few years ago. Without him around anymore, though, the mother is demanding more of her time.
My friend loves her mother, but she is getting frustrated with having to care for her when she should be home taking care of her own children.
Her husband said something about it recently, causing further frustration and creating tension in their marriage.
Like many caregivers in the “sandwich generation”—adults caring for parents and children at the same time—she feels torn between two worlds and doesn’t know what to do.
Before she becomes more resentful, it would be helpful for her to learn a new spiritual discipline: saying “no.”
All of us have a penchant for people pleasing, and many of us have been taught that we are valued—and valuable—when we care for others.
We care for our loved ones, our children and our friends in need, which is good, but when we take care of others at the expense of caring for ourselves—and our immediate families—then we need to stop, listen to the Spirit and learn to set boundaries so that we don’t burn out.
The spiritual discipline of saying “no” is one of the hardest to practice, but it is one of the most critical in maintaining a healthy relationship with God and others.
It is a practice important to our relationships with families and friends; it is even important in the workplace.
I know of a bridesmaid and bride who didn’t speak to one another years after the wedding because the bride demanded too much from the bridesmaid.
The bridesmaid chose to say “yes” to everything she was asked to do instead of being honest enough to tell the bride that she felt used and manipulated.
The bridesmaid enjoyed being in the wedding party; she longed to make sure the bride had the best wedding ever.
The lack of boundaries burned her out, however, and she stopped participating in the relationship once the wedding day had passed.
Sadly, this scenario plays itself out far too often when all the bridesmaid had to do in order to save the relationship was practice the art of saying “no” to some of the things she was being asked to do.
One of the best ways to practice this spiritual discipline is to try it on the small things in life.
When a loved one whom you trust asks you to do something that’s easy—go to the store or participate in a dinner party, for example—politely but firmly decline.
Give a general reason, but be positive: “That sounds like a good opportunity, but I have a previous engagement at that time.”
You have the right to keep your “engagement” confidential, even if it only amounts to you staying home to watch a favorite movie.
Another way to practice this spiritual discipline is to keep a calendar in which you block off time for work, recreation, rest and other obligations.
I find that if I don’t write things in my calendar related to my family, I either forget about them or I don’t make time for them.
It’s better to write down appointments no matter how innocuous than to forget or break a promise to a loved one who is counting on you to be somewhere at a specific time.
This scheduling should also include time to catch up on rest. I block off Saturday nights for some good “me time.”
I don’t make plans, and I don’t make promises about that time. It’s my night to rest before having to preach the next day. If a friend asks to spend time together, I look for another time to do so.
While this is harder when you are actively caring for someone or need to help someone who relies on you, saying “no” will improve and sometimes even salvage the relationship in the long run.
What good is it if you always say “yes,” but your spirit grows in resentment toward a loved one who needs you to be honest, healthy and whole?
Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Vero Beach, Florida.