Freeing Yourself from the Trap of Trying to Do it All


I started to feel overwhelmed again last Tuesday morning. My to do list felt too long and the hours to get things done felt too short. I needed time to rest but felt stuck in the commitments I had already made. The combination of needing a break from work and managing a few projects outside of work was pushing my ideal balance of busyness too far. I have always tended to do too much. However, over the last few years, I have made an effort to increase my time for rest and self-care, to get comfortable spending time relaxing and not doing anything productive. Though I’ve gotten better at cutting back when I start to feel overwhelmed and saying no to things that I don’t have time for, I still struggle with these things and am making efforts to grow in this area.

It is essential for us as Black women to take a hard look at the ways we are complicit in wearing ourselves down. The stress we hold from always carrying a heavy load and taking on too much contributes to the negative health outcomes that we see among Black women. Higher rates of mortality from breast cancer and heart disease and higher rates of other physical illnesses. We also know that stress is a trigger for mental illness. There are a myriad of societal factors outside of our control that negatively impact our health and well being and it’s important that we take responsibility for the things we can control like how much we do.

There are a number of things the cause us to do too much and I’m highlighting them in this post. I encourage you to take some time to reflect honestly on the things that cause you to do too much in your life. To think about the things that prevent you from creating space for the rest and care that you need.

Always stepping up

As Black women, we tend to step up, take on responsibility, and fill in the gaps. We have the legacy of being dependable, hard working people. In our churches we are often the ones coming early to cook, leading rehearsals for the youth, staying late to clean up, and visiting the sick and elderly. At our jobs we may be the ones to volunteer to take on new tasks an projects. We may be the ones who always follow through on our commitments. While, it is wonderful to be dependable and to make things happen, feeling like we always have to step up because no one else will can be frustrating. Additionally, sometimes we prevent other people from taking responsibility for things because we step up too soon and don’t give them the chance to contribute. If this is a challenge for you, take the time to think about whether you can take on a new role and responsibility before you say yes. See if waiting to step up allows someone else to take on some of the work you had been doing before.

The allure of being a martyr

I am using the term martyr to refer to the tendency to sacrifice yourself and well-being in order to get things done. There is something alluring about being able to say that you’re always busy and always being the person to make things happen. American culture lauds busyness and hard work and it can feel good to have people say that they are impressed by  how much you do. It feels great to be the one to get the glory, to claim sole responsibility for a task well done. However, the downside is that being a martyr in this way is often accompanied by resentment. Do you feel resentful that people are asking you to do too much? Do you feel frustrated that you seem to be working harder than everyone else? When this resentment develops it’s harder to enjoy the work you are doing and creates tension and discord in your relationships. I encourage you to take some time to think about whether you are being driven by the allure of being a martyr, of being someone who is willing to sacrifice their time and well being to make things happen for other people.

Getting identity from being productive

Connected to the allure of being a martyr is the challenge of attaching our identities to being productive and accumulating accomplishments. It can be difficult to say no to things and make time to rest and relax if you feel like you are losing part of yourself, your identity, during times when you are not being productive. This issue is particularly challenging for women who are often socialized to constantly give to the people in their lives. As women we are socialized to feel guilty for taking time for ourselves and seem to only allow it if the personal time is related to grooming (e.g. making sure our hair and nails look right). Remember that your worth still stands when you are relaxing, it is not diminished by taking a break from work. I encourage you to think about whether you take on too much because your concerned about judgment from yourself or others if you took time out to relax and not be productive regularly.

Having a hard time saying no

I have a hard time saying no and I don’t think I’m alone in that struggle. One of the reasons it can be hard to say no is that it can feel really good to say yes. When someone asks you to do something it is gratifying to agree to help the person. However, when we say yes to things that we don’t really want to do or don’t have the capacity to do we end up feeling frustrated and resentful when we have to follow through on that commitment. The positive experience of saying yes in the moment can result in a longer lasting negative experience in the long run. In contrast, when we say no to things that we don’t want to do, we often feel uncomfortable in the moment and relieved in the long run when we have more time to focus on the things we want and need to do. Additionally, when we have a hard time saying no we become resentful of people asking us for things and it can make it hard for us to ask for the things we need. If we believe that we have a choice to say yes or no to requests we can be more open when people ask us for things. Additionally, this will increase our comfort in asking others for things because we know that they also have the choice to say no. Think about the times when you say yes and really wanted to say no. Consider whether you’re willing to have the discomfort of saying no in order to feel better about your choices in the long run.

Discomfort with being alone

When I was in my early 20s I had a hard time being alone. This is part of what caused me to over-schedule myself, to make sure that the times when I was alone were infrequent and needed to be filled with graduate school work. Through therapy I realized that I was avoiding myself, that I did not want to give myself room in my life because I did not want to be with myself. Thankfully, I like myself a lot these days and enjoy and value my alone time. There is some variation related to how much alone time different people need; introverts often need more time alone than extroverts but everyone needs it. I encourage you to spend some time thinking about whether you over-schedule yourself to avoid being alone. Whether there is work to be done to help you feel more comfortable being alone with yourself.

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