Excerpt: 'The Art of Extreme Self-Care'

Read an excerpt from "The Art of Extreme Self-Care," by Cheryl Richardson.

Jan. 12, 2009 — -- Best-selling author Cheryl Richardson's new book, "The Art of Extreme Self-Care: Transform Your Life One Month at a Time," offers 12 strategies to transform your life one month at a time. She says that altering one negative behavior each month can help you achieve your goals.

Extreme self-care is simply to making taking care of yourself a priority, Richardson says. One way to do that is to be able to say no to people who ask you to do things that you don't have the time or the inclination to do. Read an excerpt from the book about that topic below.

Chapter Three: Let Me Disappoint You

I hate being disappointed. For me, getting my hopes up and then having them dashed is and has always been a very difficult thing to take. That's why when someone asks for a favor, my reflex is often to say yes when I'd really rather say no. Or I spend far too long devising a gracious excuse, only to end up feeling frustrated and resentful for having wasted so much of my time.

Not long after I started working with Thomas Leonard, he challenged me to do something that sent waves of anxiety coursing through my veins. He knew that I was too concerned with what people thought of me and that I was bending over backward to be liked. So, to help me get over my need to be a good girl, he suggested that I make one person angry every day for an entire month. His intention was to help me become "desensitized" to my fear of conflict and letting people down by confronting their anger, disappointment, or hurt feelings head-on. Just the thought of doing this made me sick to my stomach. And he knew it. But he (and eventually I) also knew that it was important. It helped me start caring less about what others think and more about what I think. My willingness to face this fear paved the way for a more honest and genuine way of life.

Most of us don't like to hurt or disappoint our fellow men and women. It's an uncomfortable thing to do. Some common reasons for this are:

We don't want to feel guilty.

We don't want to disappoint others because we know how bad it feels.

We don't have the language to let someone down with grace and love.

Our fear of conflict and our desire to keep the peace keep us from telling the truth.

We want people to like us and are uncomfortable when they don't.

One of the harsh realities about practicing Extreme Self-Care is that you must learn to manage the anxiety that arises when other people are disappointed, angry, or hurt. And they will be. When you decide to break your pattern of self-sacrifice and deprivation, you'll need to start saying no, setting limits, and putting boundaries in place to protect your time, energy, and emotional needs. This poses a difficult challenge for any sensitive, caring person. Why? Because you will, for instance, disappoint a friend when you decide not to babysit her kids. Or you'll probably hurt your son's feelings when you tell him that he has to walk to his friend's house instead of always being chauffeured. Or you might anger your partner when you ask him to wash his own clothes. Because you'll be changing the rules of the game, certain individuals won't like it. But remember, if you want to live a meaningful life that also makes a difference in the lives of others, you need to make a difference in your own life first. That way your motivation is pure and without regret.

How to Disappoint the Right Way

Barbara was aware of her tendency to be a good girl, and even before she contacted me, she knew exactly what was going on. "I'm about to commit the ultimate good-girl act," she admitted. "For the last six months, my manager has worked hard to help me find a new position in a part of the country with a warmer climate, which is something I've wanted for a long time. But as I go through the interview process, it's becoming clear that the job isn't what I thought it would be, and I don't think I'll be happy. And here's the crazy thing—believe it or not, I'm actually thinking about taking the job anyway. Because my manager has really gone out of his way to help me, I'd hate to let him down."

As outrageous as this story seems, I wasn't surprised in the least. If you think about it, I'm sure you can recall times when you've done a similar thing. For example, even though everything inside of you screamed "No!" perhaps you agreed to take on a new client just because you didn't want her to feel rejected. Or maybe you argued with your spouse about not having enough time together, and then you found yourself agreeing to run a fund-raiser for your child's school that very day, simply because you wanted the other parents to know how committed you were. Every day people make critical decisions based on what others want, knowing on some level that they're committing an act of self-betrayal. The role of the good girl (or boy) is a tough one to turn down.

So what happens when you start to let people down and they get upset? When you practice Extreme Self-Care there will be fallout, to be sure. In fact, you may lose some relationships that you thought were important to you. This is bound to happen, because if you tend to overgive, you've trained those in your life to expect it and they'll question you once you stop. Remember that by making your needs a priority, you're also changing the rules.

Don't be surprised if someone close to you—a best friend, family member, or spouse—tries to reel you back in by making more demands or tempting you with guilt. When this happens, the worst thing you can do is give in, as that sends mixed messages and teaches others to doubt your word. Instead, you need to be honest, direct, and resolved to take care of yourself. Don't overexplain, defend, or invite a debate about how you feel. The fewer words, the better.

This is why I emphasize having good support in place prior to starting the work outlined in this book. Left on your own to master the art of disappointment, it's almost a given that you'll let your guard down or lose some of your resolve. Don't allow this to happen—enlist some help. You'll need the assistance of those who are committed to their own Extreme Self-Care so that they can be your advocates as you take a stand for your life.

Having support makes it easier to tell and live your truth. For example, for years I've called upon friends, staff members, and colleagues to help me let people down. I've also asked for support both before and after a tough conversation. It's now time to start being honest and direct, in a kind and loving way, with the people in your life so that you can stay focused on meeting your needs.

Here are some guidelines for staying on track and taking good care of yourself:

1. Buy some time. When someone makes a request of you, there are two things you should do. First, put space between the request and your answer. Before quickly responding, "Yes, I'm in!" take some time to consider the consequences of your response. Always say, "I'll need to get back to you," "I'll need to sleep on it," or "I need to check with someone before I commit" (even if that someone is you).

Second, let the person know up front that you may not be able to oblige. This makes it less personal. Statements such as "I've recently made a decision to limit the commitments I make, so I may not be able to do this" can take the pressure off should you decide that it's not in your best interest. Preparing people early on for the possibility that you won't be able to help them does something else as well. It encourages those who are asking for help to consider other options sooner rather than later.

2. Do a gut check. Once you've bought yourself some time, the next step is to check in to see if what's being requested is something you'd really like to do. Ask yourself: "On a scale from 1 to 10, how much do I really want to do this?" The closer your answer is to a 10, the more you should consider saying yes. If you're still not sure, ask yourself this: "If I knew this person wouldn't be angry, disappointed, or upset, would I say no?"

Over the years I've discovered that those who have a tendency to put the needs of others first commonly make defensive decisions. Rather than think about what they want to do, they immediately worry about what others need and how they might respond to hearing no. But practicing Extreme Self-Care means thinking about what you need first. Would satisfying this request bring you joy, fulfillment, or pleasure? Is it something you're not really thrilled to do, yet you know would support an important relationship? Let's face it, there will always be times when you do things you'd rather not to be there for someone you love. Be certain, though, that you're doing it to show love or to strengthen your connection, not out of guilt and obligation—a strategy that can actually backfire and drive a wedge between you and the one you care about.

3. Tell the truth directly—with grace and love. In all my years of coaching, I've learned that one of the main reasons why people struggle with disappointing others or saying no is because they lack the language to do so with grace and love. The moment I help someone craft a caring and respectful response, his or her courage soars.

If we go back to Barbara's story (the woman who was considering the job transfer just to keep her manager happy), here's an example of how she could present a thoughtful, considerate no:

Bob, this is a tough conversation for me to have. I know how hard you've worked on my behalf to help me find a new job, and I'm deeply grateful. But the truth is that the more I learn about the position, the more I realize that it's not for me. I'm so appreciative of what you've done for me that I considered taking the job, but I couldn't do that to myself and I know it wouldn't be good for the company. So I've decided to pass, but I want to thank you very much for your time and effort. Please let me know what I can do to help you maintain your relationship with your contact.

This example demonstrates three important steps to telling the truth with grace and love. They are:

Be honest about how you feel without overexplaining yourself. Let the person know that you regret having to turn down the request (if it's true), but don't leave a door open when you need a wall. Be direct ("I feel bad about letting you down, but I need to") instead of wishy-washy ("I don't think I can do it, but if something changes, I'll let you know"). Allow your humanness to shine through, but don't give the impression that you're open to any discussion. The idea is to be considerate with your choice of words while sending a clear message that you need to say no.

Tell the truth directly, plain and simple. Stick to one or two concise lines and explain (briefly), if need be, why you can't fulfill the request. Then move on to the next step.

Depending on the circumstance, ask how you can support someone with an awkward situation or get them the help they need. However, do this only when you have an ethical responsibility that relates to a particular person or situation. For example, if you need to leave a volunteer position in the middle of a fund-raising campaign, you could recommend another person to take your place or help write an ad. Or if you changed your mind about helping a friend paint her living room, you might do what you can to find someone for her to hire.

Let's look at a few more examples where you can use this three-step plan:

Scenario #1: You're invited to the wedding of a friend who lives in another state, but you can't afford to go. Telling the truth with clarity, grace, and love might sound like this:

I wish I didn't have to, but I might end up hurting your feelings. I won't be able to attend your wedding and I'm sorry. My family can't afford the expense at this time, and since I hate to miss your big day, what can we do to acknowledge this special time in some other way?

Scenario #2: After agreeing to babysit your best friend's children for the weekend, you realize that you're late in finishing an important project at work. You need to spend the next few weekends catching up so that you won't let the team down. Here's an idea of what to say:

I'm sorry to disappoint you, but something came up at work and I'm behind schedule on an important project. I'll get into trouble if I don't spend the next two weekends working on it, so I'll need to back out of my agreement to babysit the kids at the end of the month. I feel bad, and I'm wondering if we can put our heads together to help you find someone else.

Scenario #3: You've been asked to join the board of a local charity. Try this:

Thank you for your invitation. While I'm unable to accept, I wish you all the best with your organization [project, goals, or what have you].

This is a great way to offer a short, courteous, and direct response to the kind of professional requests or more general invitations that you instinctively know wouldn't be the right fit. After years of struggling with how to graciously decline requests, I've found that this one does the trick. There's no need to explain why—just tell the truth and genuinely wish them the best.

Finally, keep in mind that being honest about your commitment to self-care is almost always something people can hear, understand, and respect. So something like this would be ideal for just about any situation:

In an effort to take care of myself and to spend more time at home, I need to decline your offer, although I'm honored that you asked.

Remember, if you're going to disappoint people the right way, the idea is to tell the truth with respect and care, not manage their emotions. While you can't control how someone feels or how they react, you can control how you feel and how you choose to make your point. Don't measure your success by the response you receive. Measure it by how you feel once your anxiety disappears. Do you know in your heart that you made the right decision? Do you feel relieved? Are you pleased with the way you handled saying no? Are you glad you did it? If the answers to these questions are yes, then you've done the right thing for everyone involved.

Extreme Self-Care Challenge: Learn to Use Your Voice

Now that you have the tools you need to protect your energy, you're ready to practice saying no and taking good care of yourself. Over the next 30 days, become a master at using your voice. Your goal is to get comfortable with disappointing people, facing conflict, dealing with anger, and realizing the possibility that you might hurt someone's feelings. Use what you learned in this chapter to handle requests in a healthier way. Then each time you decline a request, use the experience as a learning opportunity by writing about it in your notebook or journal.

As you think about what happened, ask yourself:

What did I do that I feel good about?

What language did I use to state my position? What worked best?

What would I do differently the next time I'm faced with a request?

Always take your time before responding.

Always do a gut check—be conscious of the way you feel.

Tell the truth with grace and love, in a clear and decisive way.


"My Answer Is No . . . If That's Okay with You: How Women Can Say No and (Still) Feel Good About It," by Nanette Gartrell, M.D.—a practical guide to setting boundaries while preserving important relationships.

"Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most," by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen—one of the best guides I've found for facing conflict.

SelfGrowth.com —this Website is dedicated to providing valuable information on personal growth as it relates to success, relationships, health, money, spirituality, and so forth.

Helpguide —an online resource for empowering you and your loved ones to understand, prevent, and resolve life's challenges.

The following excerpt is taken from the new book "The Art of Extreme Self-Care," by Cheryl Richardson. It is published by Hay House (January 2009) and is available at all bookstores or online at www.amazon.com.