Feeling good about saying no

The past two years have been challenging for me; someone who has never found it easy to say no. On the social front, while I used to struggle not to overcommit to get-togethers with friends, meals out, movies, live music and other such activities, the pandemic has eliminated most such opportunities, leaving me with almost nothing to which I can say no.

Not so on the work front. The viral pandemic has led to unprecedented increases in the rate of violence against women, in particular intimate partner abuse; Canada’s and Ontario’s family laws have undergone significant changes, specifically as they relate to violence in the family, and the demand for legal supports and services by women fleeing abuse have shot through the ceiling. Conferences now happen online, trainings have become webinars and media interviews are routinely conducted over Zoom. Organizations struggling to meet the increased need for their services and the not-unsurprising exhaustion in their staff, need support with managing their capacity.

All of this has put me in greater demand than ever, coming just as I had (almost) convinced myself it was time to begin thinking about easing my way towards some form of retirement.

Since March 2020, I have said no more than ever; but I have also said yes more than I should have. Most of the time when I have said no, I have been able to do so with no second thoughts. Most of the time when I have said yes, I have not regretted that decision. But a few decisions have rattled around in my brain long after they were made.

Knowing when to say no

Last week, Luke’s Place was asked to work on a family law case that is heading to the Supreme Court. To assist us make a decision, I made a list of pros and cons. There were plenty of pros: the case has the potential to be important, the work would be interesting, I thought we had something of value to offer the collaborative effort, it would be stimulating to work with a team of feminist lawyers. And, let’s be honest, what lawyer doesn’t want the chance to work on a Supreme Court case?

There was only one con: we already had too much work on the go, which was enough to trump all the pros on my list. We said no, but I spent the evening tormenting myself by rethinking what my brain knew was the right decision.

The importance of tenacity

Happily for me, the next morning, a friend sent me a link to a blog post by Robert Reich:  

“[A]lmost nothing worth doing can get done in the short term. Even under the most favorable circumstances, social change never occurs quickly. . . The history of social reform – women’s suffrage, civil rights, labor rights, LGBTQ rights, and so on – confirms the central importance of tenacity.”

Reich then sets out three tips for sustaining tenacity and warding off burnout:

  • We need to pace ourselves
  • We should work as part of a team
  • We need to celebrate victories, no matter how small

I think he’s right, but what he proposes is hard to do, especially during a pandemic.

It’s hard to pace ourselves when issues arise suddenly and without warning. We couldn’t plan for the pandemic; it just arrived. A Supreme Court case happens when it does; you can’t build it into your workplan a year ahead. Laws change on the schedule of the government not of the folks most affected by those changes. A woman with critical needs appears unannounced in our office (or, now, on the telephone) no matter how many appointments the frontline workers already have that day.

While working as part of a team makes everything better, keeping that team healthy and working well together is not easy in a pandemic. Is that terse email from a colleague because she is rushed or is she frustrated with me about something? What do I make of that expression on a co-worker’s tiny little face during a zoom meeting? I can’t just pop into someone’s office to ask a quick clarifying question. We can’t relax, share personal news or talk about books or movies over a shared meal in the lunchroom.

Celebrating victories, no matter how small, is an important part of building tenacity. Almost none of us does it enough, because there is always more work to get on with. We need to do more of it: in the end it will give us the energy we need to take into our work on that next campaign, case, client. But, let’s be honest, finding creative and meaningful ways to celebrate online is difficult. The novelty of zoom cocktail parties, birthday celebrations, holiday festivities and the like has long since worn off for most of us.

Slowing down

Claire Culhane, a tireless prison rights activist in Canada for decades whose dedication I admired greatly, once said: “Burning out is copping out.” I took these words to heart at the time, but I now think she was wrong.

Periodic burnout or exhaustion is inevitable if we bring passion to our work. We need to build and nurture tenacity by following Reich’s tips and by saying no without feeling guilty. If we don’t want to collapse along the way to our goal, we need to pace ourselves.

There will be another important Supreme Court case, more laws will change and need to be changed, women will continue to need assistance.

Pacing ourselves will keep us here for the next round and the one after that. It will also make us do our work better. As James Clear recently wrote:

“Slowing down enables you to act in a high quality way. Kind rather than curt. Polished rather than sloppy. It’s hard to be thoughtful when you’re in a rush.”

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