The Hardest Word to Say by Maree Anderson (for Writers Gone Wild)
Seems the more you volunteer your time, the more you cultivate an expectation you're the one to call on whenever help's needed. You become that person everyone thinks of when they're stuck. The first name on their list. The sure thing.
We've all come across it, right? Whether it be organizing conferences, driving other people's kids to sports practices every week, overseeing that fundraiser in the weekend, helping out in the classroom, getting up early for morning school crossing patrol even if it disrupts the rest of the family.... And you look about you and wonder why it's the same people stepping up to the plate over and over, year in and year out. You, in other words.
Yep, that used to be me. Still is, in some cases.
I've only recently learned to flat-out say "No" when someone asks me to volunteer yet again for something I'd finally plucked up the courage to resign from. And even longer to say it in a way that isn't open to expert wheedling and begging, which inevitably leads to me giving in and uttering the fatal words, "Okay, what do you want me to do?"
Some advice: the only firm way to politely turn someone down when they need a volunteer is to straight away say, "I'm sorry, I can't." Don't provide any reasons why you can't. Keep silent and wait for the other person to speak. That last bit's important, because if you give in and speak first, you'll end up justifying why you can't, and feeling embarrassed and guilty... and end up volunteering time you don't have.
I think it's a personality type. Maybe it's even genetic. I'm seeing the same traits developing in my daughter--that need to "step up" even if she's done her bit and someone else's and it puts her under a heap of pressure. Lucky she's got me to temper her eagerness. It's not easy though. For me, I think volunteering to help out, stepping up to the plate when no one else would, made me feel useful and valued. And for a lot of reasons I won't go into, I needed to feel useful and valued. So it was kind of a win-win situation.
Unfortunately the demands for me to volunteer my time only got stronger when I started writing full-time. Worse, some people believed writing wasn't a "real" job and all their "must be so nice to have nothing to do but read books and write all day" comments only added to my guilt. But instead of shrugging them off (because as any writer will tell you, writing is damn hard work!) I felt even more guilty, like doing something I loved, and needed to do for my sanity's sake, was somehow wrong.
The downside of being a yes-woman and volunteering for organizing committees and contests and school stuff was the toll on my family and my writing time. Not to mention if you're behind the scenes at a conference, for example, you have precious little time to enjoy that time you've snatched away from the demands of your family to enjoy the darn conference you've paid for! And eventually, all the pleasure of volunteering didn't balance out the resentment when I put my hand up yet again to take on some job that needed doing. When I started looking around and wondering "Why me? Why the hell aren't all these other people volunteering?", and when I got pissy about ending up with this, that, or the other job, something had to give.
The sad thing was, I didn't realize how awfully resentful I'd become. It took my husband to point it out to me--and threaten divorce if I volunteered for the conference committee for a 4th year running. (He was only kidding... I think.) And he was right. I'd done my share. It was time for other people to take a turn. Even so it took me a long time for me to learn to say "No" without feeling like I was a bad person who was letting people down.
I'm not saying don't volunteer because believe me, volunteers make the world go round, and you're needed! What I'm saying is when you've done your share, contributed your time and expertise, it's okay to step back and say "No". It's okay not to put your hand up next time, and let someone else take on that job. It's okay to value the precious time you steal to write. Or paint. Or be with your kids. Or whatever moves you and inspires you and makes you a better person.
Good. Now all you need to learn to do is quit feeling guilty about it. (Sorry, can't help you with that one yet. I'm still a work in progress!)