From a fairly young age, I was what you might call an overachiever.
Simultaneously blessed and cursed with an interest in and aptitude for a variety of different things, combined with an inclination to please everyone in my life, I threw myself headfirst into, well, everything. I played piano and did sports (yes, plural) and theatre and dance. I was in the choir at church, at youth group on Wednesdays, in Bible study on Thursdays, and AWANA on Sundays, where, of course, I learned all the regular verses, plus the extra ones, and also played on the AWANA Games and Bible Quizzing teams.
It wasn't until high school that someone told me I might have a problem with overcommitment, but even then, I didn't really listen.
I had just gone through a semester long leadership class required for anyone who wanted to be a student leader with the youth group. At this point, I can't tell you if I took it because I really wanted to take it or if I took it because I felt like I was supposed to, but the point is I finished it and the natural course of action was to apply to be a student small group leader.
After spending hours perfecting my application, highlighting all the ways I served in the church and had grown in my faith through that service, I sent it in. And they told me no.
I was shocked and a little devastated. But again, I couldn't tell you if it was because this is something I actually wanted or because I felt like it was expected of me.
The reason the leadership of our student ministries didn't allow me to be a student small group leader was simple and, looking back on it, incredibly wise: I had too many commitments.
You would think by the time I'd graduated high school, I would have learned my lesson in overcommitment, but you'd be wrong.
The spring semester of my senior year in college was the only semester I didn't pull an all-nighter and it wasn't just because I had a nasty habit of procrastination.
After transferring in as a sophomore, that fall I managed to get a grand total of seven hours of sleep between Tuesday and Friday of the last week of classes. Yes, ladies and gents, I pulled two all-nighters in a row. Fall of junior year, I got one hour of sleep over a 43-hour period and only because a friend refused to drive me to Friday night's hockey game if I didn't sleep while he finished up a paper. Fall of my senior year, I progressively stayed up an hour later every single night during the final week of classes, culminating with a 7am bedtime on the Friday of that week. Spring semesters weren't quite so drastic, as I merely pulled one all-nighter during finals week. Except for senior year.
In the five years following graduation, my levels of activity ebbed and flowed until this past spring where I hit perhaps the busiest season I'd ever experienced.
Partially due to commitments of my own and partially due to big life events happening for a lot of people I love, I had a two-month period where there was one day that didn't have something on the calendar. And somewhere in the middle of that craziness, I broke down. A couple of times.
Despite constantly reassuring myself that I could handle everything life was throwing my way, I wound up sobbing in the middle of my church's sanctuary after a Saturday morning rehearsal because the stress had just become too much.
As I look back on my life, I'm not entirely sure what it is that made me so prone to overcommitment. Perhaps it was that aptitude for and interest in a numerous amount of things. But I have a feeling the people pleaser in me had a whole lot more to do with it than anything else and that's where I fall a little short — because I don't know where the people pleaser came from.
If you're anything like me, one of the scariest words on the world for you is "no."
Not necessarily for you to hear, but for you to say to someone else. Even if you know that saying "yes" to one more thing will almost definitely be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Even if you know you'll have to cut out dinner with a friend or an afternoon with your kids or something else that is wonderful and life giving to fit this new thing in, you still can't bring yourself to say "no" because the thought of disappointing someone absolutely terrifies you.
I understand that kind of fear. It's the kind of fear that pushed me to my breaking point more times than I'd like to admit before I finally asked myself an important question: what, exactly, am I so afraid of?
It's not just disappointing people, though. It's the bigger idea of what disappointing someone means. Whether we realize it or not, our identity can easily become wrapped up in the things we do rather than who we are.
And when your identity is so wrapped up in being the person who does things, the person whom other people can rely on no matter what, it's terrifying to think of not being that person anymore. Because if you're not that person — if you're suddenly the person who says "no" to things instead of saying "yes" to them — who would you be?
A few months back, I picked up two books back to back that put the finishing touches on a thought process the Lord had begun in my heart months prior. The first was Essentialism by Greg McKeown and the second was Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist.
In Essentialism, Greg asks the question, "If you could only do one thing, what would it be?" He makes the argument that we spend too much time doing good things and not enough time doing great things, which leads us to life lives that never truly make the positive impact we want to make. In Present Over Perfect, Shauna chronicles her journey of doing just that — of learning to say "no," learning to identify the essential things for her own life, and the sometimes painful experience of putting new habits and a new way of living into practice.
If I could describe the two books in relation to each other, I would say Essentialism is the theory and Present Over Perfect is the case study. Essentialism is the questions you need to ask yourself and the "how to," while Present Over Perfect is the example of how it plays out in someone's life.
Reading the books in succession started the wheels turning again and in the course of three days, I said no to requests for three different things.
If you know me at all, you know what a feat that is. But by that point, I'd been spending a couple of weeks asking myself those questions we're often afraid to ask ourselves and wondering what my life would look like if I did the things I wanted to do because I wanted to do them, not because I felt they were expected of me.
In Present Over Perfect, Shauna says something that smacked me in the face: "It can be hard to grasp the idea that we have some say over the size of our own lives—that we have the agency and authority and freedom to make them smaller or larger, heavier or lighter."
I have the freedom to say "no" to things I don't want to do. You have the freedom to say "no" to the things you don't want to do. And we both have the freedom to look at our lives — to look at our time and our talents and our interests and the things God has called us to do and love and be — and say "no" to the things that don't make the most of who God has created us to be.
And certainly, it is terrifying to change trajectory. It is terrifying to put on a full stop and focus on the narrow plot of land the Lord has given you to tend. And it is terrifying to consider that you might disappoint others who have come to count on you for certain things.
But in the grand scheme of things, what is scarier: momentarily disappointing one person who, in all likelihood, will be able to find someone else who can say "yes" to the thing you said "no" to? Or consistently disappointing the people you care about most — and the God who created you — because you're so busy trying to not disappoint everyone else?
When was the last time you stopped to think about all the things you do and why you do them?
As we get older, we often wind up on a certain track that seems to have a natural progression — like applying to be a small group leader was the natural thing to do after I finished the student leadership course. But when we start ourselves down these tracks, we often fail to ask ourselves at each step, "Is this where I want to be going?" And then "Is this still where I want to be going?" Or, more importantly, "Is this where God wants me to be going?"
Sometimes He sends us down a path and it's clear that He created us to follow that path to the very end. But sometimes He sends us down a path for a period of time and shifts us in another direction. And sometimes He lets us walk down a path simply to show us it's not the path we were supposed to go down...we were just too stubborn to listen to Him in the first place.
You may not be like me. You may be the kind of person who has always known who you are and the things God has called you to and you've never struggled with saying "yes" to too many good things, which prevents you from being able to fully invest in the great things God has called you to.
But if you are like me, know that I am still wading through all of this change. After years of being the "yes" girl, I'm walking through a season that's filled with a lot more "no" answers than I sometimes feel comfortable giving, swinging a little bit in the opposite direction of my former "yes" filled ways. But I do that because I'm trying to figure the weight of my own life again and I hardly know where to begin. After years of carrying a weight so heavy it strains and breaks, carrying an exceedingly light load seems to be a good way to start figuring out just how much weight God has intended for my life in this season.
As Shauna says, "...over time, when you rebuild a life that's the right size and dimension and weight, full of the things you're called to, emptied of the rest, then you do get to live some yes again. But for a while, no is what gets you there."
And how beautiful would that be? To live a life built perfectly proportionate to the person God has created you to be and the gifts He has given you? A life filled with beautiful, wonderful things that fill you up and give you life because the Lord has called you to those things and uniquely created you to contribute those great things to the world?
I'll take that over being the dependable, "yes" girl any day.
image via minimography