I used to have an irrational fear of saying “no”. I felt responsible for everyone’s feelings, and for making sure no one is upset. Any situation where I had to confront someone and tell them something is not possible, or that I’m not going to help them, would cause me dread and anxiety. Working in customer support, there were always people who wanted more than I could handle. In result, I often promised too much and then crashed under the weight of conflicting expectations.
I’m writing about this in the past tense, because I got much better at it. I’m still not looking forward to situations when I need to say “no” to someone, and it still feels quite unpleasant. I still procrastinate before delivering the news, especially if there are no good ways out of a situation. But I do deliver the bad news in the end, with grace and compassion, and without overpromising things I know I’m unable to do. For someone like me, this is incredible progress.
What helped me change my mind was, again, a shift in perspective. Many people told me over the years that I can’t efficiently help people when I’m overstretched and burned out, and I understood it on some rational level. On the other hand, I still felt like it’s the right thing to do. I thought that if I don’t go above and beyond and fix that low-priority bug which won’t be looked into anytime soon–then no one else will do, and disaster will follow. I thought that I can’t ever pass up an opportunity to help someone, and the only limit to what I should do is the possibility of burnout.
I learned that this is an unhealthy attitude not just because it does lead to my burnout in the end. By taking responsibility of other people’s problems, I deprived them of a chance to work through them on their own. If I fix a minor bug, it might take it off our developers’ attention and delay a more robust solution that could address the underlying bad design. If I share a piece of custom code with a customer, they’ll depend on me every time there’s a software update to make sure my code is up to date as well. If I commit to doing something no one else can or will do, then I’m never allowed to ever take a day off, or the whole thing will crumble.
I used to think if someone has a problem that I know how to solve, I should solve it no matter what, period. Now I realize that my workarounds and dirty hacks often bring more harm than good. Rather than tell our customers the software they bought is not what they’re looking for, I sometimes tried to make it work for them somehow, with lots of willpower, custom code, and duct tape. In the end they were understandably upset when the unicorn I promised was in fact a heavily made-up rhino, that needed to be dragged with a rope cause it couldn’t quite walk on its own. Had I had the guts to say “no” right from the start, we’d all have saved a lot of time, and the user would know where to find someone that’s capable of delivering them exactly the kind of a unicorn that they were looking for.
I used to think my job was solving other people’s problems. In fact, I ended up working in customer support because I felt responsible for making sure everyone around is happy. Now I see my role much more as a teacher and a guide, more than anything else. Instead of solving your problem, I’d much rather equip you with the tools so that you can solve it yourself. Rather than trying to save you, I’d much rather show you how you can save yourself.