Like many other people I struggle with saying no. There are a number of reasons for this. One of them is my career. I started my advocacy and writing career in 2005, when my first book was accepted for publication. At that time requests for my services were quite rare. I did the occasional conference or chapter in a book but not much more. In 2012 I had an experience which catapulted me into the autism advocacy world. Advocacy became my driving passion, my very own interest. For the first time I was striving to do as much writing and public speaking as I could. I figured I had a lot to say and I wanted to say it to as many people as I could. I said yes to every single request for my services. I also had individuals contacting me with requests for advice. Almost every day involved the need to respond to someone and I pretty much always said yes. It never occurred to me to say no because why would I decline something I really wanted to do and which made a difference?
Of course I ended up getting burned out. Several times. I rarely took downtime and I felt extremely pressured. My friend and coauthor Dr Emma Goodall gave me a buzzer which says no in several different ways. While this was partially humorous it also served an important purpose – to remind me that it is OK to say no. I keep it on my desk at home and when I am asked to do something which I would prefer not to I press it!
Saying no is really difficult for me for a few reasons. The first is that I actually would like to do everything I am asked to do. I enjoy writing and speaking and giving advice. These things are not onerous to me but if I do too much then I am in trouble. I have to remind myself of times in the past when I have been burned out. Another issue with ‘no’ is the I don’t want to disappoint anyone. If an organisation wants me to speak at their event I don’t want to decline it because I figure they will be disappointed. And another reason I struggle to say no is that I have been trying to build my profile for years. On reflection I now have quite a big profile so don’t reply need to build it any more but my mind is stuck with the idea that my profile could be bigger and that the best way to build my profile is to say yes to a bunch of requests for speaking or writing.
I now ensure I take at least two hours downtime each day. I am still terrible at saying no to speaking gigs. My talks spreadsheet for 2021 already has 37 events on it. This is more than one per week! I need to work on this. One thing I have done is make a list of speakers who I can recommend to organisations if I decline a request to speak. This means that I don’t have to do tithe talk and the organisation will not be disappointed by the lack of Yennski because they will ave a speaker recommended by Yennski who is equally awesome! Managing burnout ad being able to say no is an ongoing issue for me. I have to tell myself that it is OK to decline an event or request. I am improving but it is something which requires my close attention.
Burnout happens when we take on too much – or have too many demands for our time and energy. It can be caused by a range of triggers and is very challenging. Burnout can accumulate over time and we can struggle to see it happening. Often others who are close to us will see burnout coming long before we do. For this reason it is helpful to listen to others if they express concern about our workload. It is possible to head off burnout by simply stopping doing the things which are contributing to it. If you actually do get to the place of being burned out the key is to stop. I recently experienced burnout and I took a month off, not doing any talks or writing for a month. It worked well.
Saying no to someone is a form of assertiveness. Assertiveness can be tricky and can take a lot of practice. A lot of neurodivergent people struggle with assertiveness. If you have been bullied or invalidated in some other way it can be very difficult to be assertive. Assertiveness is a really useful skill and it is possible to improve our capability to be assertive through practicing declining requests. It is best to start by being assertive with someone we are comfortable with and feel safe with. Being assertive is a great way of addressing burnout and saying no.
Importance of downtime
Downtime is absolutely essential. Nobody – not even me – can work all the time. We need downtime from work tasks but also from emotional and social input. Being around people all the time can be overwhelming for autistic folks and things like emotional labour can contribute to burnout to a similar or greater degree than not being able to say no to request for work-type activities. It is important to protect ourselves from burnout and overload and recovering form burnout can be a difficult and unpleasant process. This can involve limiting social contact or emotional labour. Some people are more draining than others. If we are aware of this it means we can limit time with those people and decline contact with them and this will enable us to be in a better space and avoid burnout.