Mar. 01, 2010

Time Out: Learn how to find balance in your work, home, and social life

By Emily Wojcik

By any standard, Tiffany Williams, 26, has a demanding schedule. A senior assistant editor with John Wiley and Sons, she also volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters and the American Cancer Society, is active in her church, and sings professionally. Last fall she was involved in an off-Broadway play, and in January, she began teaching an after-school music program. “All my life I’ve been the ‘go-to’ person,” says Williams, of Perth Amboy, NJ. “People could call me at the drop of a hat, and I’d be there.”

Though Williams loves her busy life, she had to learn to be careful about saying “yes” to things, especially after she was diagnosed with lupus at age 19. “As a young African American woman, my expectations for myself are really high. But when you have lupus, it takes so much more energy to do something that the person next to you can just do.” The desire to push herself meant that her health suffered. “I went through a phase of saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ and my blood pressure went up, and I’d take extra pills,” she says. “One time my body got so tired that I came home hysterically crying.”

Do You Know How to Say “No”?

Learning how to manage your time effectively, and how to say “no,” is a difficult but necessary part of managing lupus. Overexertion can increase fatigue and the fog of lupus, which can make it difficult to do any job well, says Kathryn Kilpatrick, M.A., C.C.C./S.L.P., a memory specialist and founder of Communication Connection in Hudson, OH. “If you’re stressed, then your executive functioning is not at its peak, and you won’t do your best.”

Six months before her wedding in 2008, Melissa Bailey, 26, discovered this firsthand. She was juggling a demanding career in advertising, an active social life, and wedding planning. “Everything was going fine. I dropped 30 pounds; I was excited,” she says. But she began losing sleep, and her eating habits suffered. “I pushed myself too hard, and then I had a flare.” When lupus began affecting her kidneys, Bailey underwent treatment that caused her to lose half her hair and gain back the weight she had lost. Now recovered and happily married, she says she realized, “I had to make time to take care of myself. When I take on too much, everything else starts to wane.”

It can be tempting to try and tackle every opportunity or request that comes your way, especially if you are just starting out in your career or have people depending on you. Rebecca Steinberger, Ph.D., an associate professor and chair of the English department at Misericordia University in Dallas, PA, was diagnosed with lupus as a college student. Later, as a newly hired professor, she ran herself ragged. But once she had tenure, “I felt like I could start saying ‘no’ to requests, and I realized that it was OK to take time for me.”

Kilpatrick warns that “the workplace is the one place where you can feel most guilty” about refusing a request. “It’s important to carefully word what you say: ‘I’d really like to do this, but my schedule is packed. Could we postpone another deadline so I can focus on this?’”

And the results can be immediate. “Having more energy helped tremendously,” Steinberger says. “And I worked on being smarter about my schedule. If someone plans a meeting for 8:30, they know I’m not coming because I can’t do mornings—when I have to get up earlier, that complicates how I’m feeling, and I have to take my needs into account.” She also made time to exercise regularly and cooks in the mornings. “I make a big pot of soup or sauce and know that my meals are done and healthy.”

Family and friends can be just as hard to turn away. “People think that when we say ‘no,’ we’re angry,” says Kilpatrick. “But it can be an expression of love, a way to help that other person understand your needs.” She points out, “We tend to say ‘yes’ to things, and then spend our time trying to get out of them.” Instead, Kilpatrick suggests giving yourself time to think about it. “Try saying, ‘I’d really like to help you. Let me check my schedule.’ That reduces the automatic ‘yes’ and gives you some control.”

Make It All About You!

Sometimes, though, you have to say “no” to yourself. It feels good to do things for others, but when your health suffers, you may have to stop. “We’re used to being able to do whatever we want, when we want, but you need to put your health first,” Bailey says.

Steinberger makes it up to herself in other ways. “I really wanted to go to a friend’s 40th birthday in Connecticut, and in addition to my lupus, it was a rough point in the semester, and I realized I couldn’t go,” she says. “So I used that time and money to go to a cool hotel nearby. I brought nice pajamas, cranked the heat, ordered room service.” Little rewards can make it easier to get through a letdown.

Ultimately, “it’s important to give yourself permission to think about your time differently,” says Kilpatrick. “You can’t push a button and say, ‘Now I have boundaries.’ But you can keep learning and practicing.”

Saying “no” is an ongoing effort, but it’s crucial to your health and your happiness. “Find your inner peace and make your environment comfortable for you,” says Steinberger. “Know who you can go to for help, and cut yourself some slack.”

Strategies for Saying “No”

Sometimes saying “no” can feel impossible. Here’s how to get started:

  • Start small. “You don’t want to begin by walking into your office and saying ‘no’ to your boss,” says Kathryn Kilpatrick, M.A., C.C.C./S.L.P. “But if you’re taking on too much in your job, you’re probably overbooked in your personal life as well. Start with people who won’t fire you. Start with saying ‘no’ to small things, and practice.”
  • Keep it brief. “I’ve learned that long explanations are usually not necessary,” says Nancy Kuniansky, a nurse living with lupus. “It’s really better in the long run to just tell people that you’re not up to it.”
  • Make a list. “Prioritize,” Kilpatrick says. “What do you have to do, and what can wait? Write down your to-do list, judge how much time you think it will take, and then double it.” Melissa Bailey adds, “If something goes over time, I cut something else. Once you start losing sleep or not eating well, everything else starts to wane.”
  • Use “I” statements. “Try to say things like, ‘I think that’s a great idea, but I need to look at my schedule,’ as opposed to ‘You’re asking me to do more?’” says Kilpatrick. “That way you don’t sound defensive.”
  • Rethink your schedule. “One thing I did was adjust my schedule to get up earlier—and I’m not a fan of getting up early,” says Rebecca Steinberger, Ph.D. “But now I can slouch into the day, have coffee, take a hot bath.”
  • Ask for help. “You have to have a support group in your life,” Steinberger says. “It’s important to know who can help you, what level they’ll go to.”
  • Communication is the key. “Learn to say, ‘I’m not feeling great today, so I’m going to take it a little easy,’ ” says Bailey. “You’re not whining—just saying how you feel.” Plus, you give people the opportunity to offer to help.
  • Reward yourself. “When you have to say ‘no’ to something you really wanted to do, try to treat yourself, like buying that pair of earrings you love,” says Steinberger. “It’s important to give yourself little incentives to take care of you.”
  • Find little ways to say “yes.” “I try to say, ‘What can I do?’” says Bailey. “For example, my husband is a runner. I can’t run with him, but I can ride my bike alongside. It makes us happy, and I’m not exhausted the way I would be if I ran.”

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