Scope creep: when NO means maybe, and maybe means YES

by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters  

I’ve been grappling with a wallop of personal guilt lately. I don’t feel guilty because I’ve done something wrong, but because I finally had to say “No!” to a friend I’d been helping for a long time.

During my public relations career, we called this phenomenon “scope creep”. For example, you happily agree one day to a project with clear parameters, but over time one thing after another gets piled on top of your desk, until the project is suddenly so unwieldy that you wonder how this even happened.

It happened because of scope creep. And your inability to say No!”  to keep the whole thing on track as you went along.  And the way things change.

My current guilt stems from deciding that I could no longer be a volunteer helper. I knew I had to stop saying: “Of course, I’ll help you!” to this friend. But every time I opened my mouth to say “No!”, I just couldn’t do it.

How could I?  I care about this person. She needed help. Who else would step in to help her if I stopped? And most of all, isn’t helping others what all good people should do?

Another friend observed recently that my guilt about even thinking of saying “No!” seemed to be linked to my reluctance to set clear boundaries at the very beginning over how much I am actually able to do for her each week. Of course, she was right.

Without any openly defined boundaries, why would I expect other people to somehow intuitively respect boundaries that aren’t even there?

Setting clear boundaries, according to psychologist Dr. Dana Gionta, author of the book From Stressed To Centered, starts with knowing and understanding what your personal limits are in the first place. She calls these limits “essential to healthy relationships and a healthy life”.

In her interesting PsychCentral interview, she points out that the first two red flags or cues that we might be ignoring our own personal boundaries are discomfort and resentment.  Dr. Gionta suggests that, during an uncomfortable interaction, we could ask ourselves:

What is it about this interaction or this person’s expectation that is causing this discomfort?

“Resentment can come from feeling unappreciated or taken advantage of. It’s often a sign that we’re pushing ourselves either beyond our own limits because we feel guilty (and want to be a good daughter or wife or friend, for instance), or because someone else is imposing their expectations, views or values on us.”

Dr. Gionta also talked about how common it is to feel guilty when setting boundaries:

  “Fear, guilt and self-doubt are big potential pitfalls. We might fear the other person’s response if we set and enforce our boundaries. We might feel guilty by speaking up or saying NO. Many believe that they should be able to cope with a situation or say YES because they’re a good person, even though they may feel drained or taken advantage of.”

Clear boundaries aren’t just a sign of a healthy relationship, adds Dr. Giota.  They’re also a sign of self-respect. But the ability to establish boundaries is impacted by how you were raised, your role in your family, and your personality: 

    “If you have held the role of caretaker, or if you learned to focus on others, letting yourself be drained emotionally or physically, then ignoring your own needs might have become the norm for you.”

That one hit home for me. Ignoring my own needs was just second nature. And good grief, I’m the one who waited two full weeks after being misdiagnosed and sent home from the ER in mid-heart attack before I finally forced myself to go back for help. By then, I was absolutely desperate.

It was only after that heart attack and subsequent cardiac complications  that I had to learn the fine art of p-a-c-i-n-g, a skill I’d never felt the need to master before 2008.

During my 35+ year career in public relations, I was typically the one tap dancing through the office with my hair on fire, cheerfully juggling multiple deadlines, all due this morning. There were few requests I ever said “No!” to.

In fact, my “NO!” usually meant “Maybe – and my “Maybe” ended up being “YES!”    I seemed to take a perverse pride in being recognized by all as the “go-to” person on any team.

But now, living with almost-daily debilitating cardiac symptoms of coronary microvascular disease, I learned that, depending on how I’m feeling, my days could be classified as “one outing” days, or “two outing” days, or (rarely) “three outing” days, each outing followed by periods of crushing exhaustion.

This reality makes me an unlikely volunteer to be asked for help, so why do I keep saying “Yes!”?

It’s ironic that over the years I keep writing about self-care, and how important it is for heart patients to master the ability to say “No!”, and putting our own needs first. I suspect it’s because I’ve had to work so hard at boundary setting myself. I seem to keep teaching myself the same lesson through my own Heart Sisters blog articles (here, here and here, for example).

Addressing the resentment or discomfort fueled by scope creep is critical, but getting better at saying “No!” and setting those personal boundaries so scope creep is less likely to happen seems much smarter.

I’m a different person now. I am no longer able to be anybody’s “go-to” person. But like many living with an invisible chronic diagnosis, I look very much like my old self, so I have to be better prepared to communicate my new boundaries.

And about the way things change. . .  

Saying “Yes!” when we really mean “No!” may seem easier in a given moment, but as Dr. Gionta suggests:

” It’s important to assertively communicate with the other person when they’ve crossed a boundary. In a respectful way, tell that  person what is bothersome to you, and also that you two can work together to address it.”


Q: Have you ever had trouble saying “NO!” in order to protect your own health boundaries?

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote much more about the importance of self-care (and saying “No!”) in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease . You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).


See also:

You Can’t Pace Yourself – Unless You Plan to Pace

Women heart attack survivors know their place

In Praise of Solitude After a Heart Attack

Could Goodism and Self-Sacrifice Be Linked to Women’s Heart Disease?

Are you a priority in your own life?

Listen up, ladies: 16 things I’ve been meaning to tell you

Why NO is a complete sentence

Are you a priority in your own life?

To just be a person, and not a patient anymore

24 thoughts on “Scope creep: when NO means maybe, and maybe means YES

  1. We used to get scope creep all the time in my IT job, regardless of how clear the boundaries were! It’s much more difficult when it’s a personal situation, though, so your article is a good reminder.

    As Richard Bach said: “We teach what we most need to learn.”

    I just watched your video too and was shocked by the list of people and things women put above themselves. Great delivery, by the way!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Julia – thanks for your kind words about my video (I’m guessing you mean my talk about women’s priorities, linked in the right hand sidebar, right? That talk includes some pretty shocking and depressing research data, didn’t it?)

      At work, we often do have limited opportunities to say NO or to set boundaries, especially in environments where work-life balance is seen as the consideration of slackers (although towards the latter years of my 35+ year public relations career, I did enjoy saying (to my boss when he was attempting to load one more urgent project onto an already-bulging deadline load) that I’d be very happy to take on his new project on as soon as he told me which one of these other four deadlines he wanted me to drop… )

      Richard Bach was RIGHT!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A life lesson I’m still working on doing without guilt!
    Easier since my heart attack a year ago… feels really good to say No! and follow through…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Have I ever had trouble saying NO to protect my own health???

    I must say that my answer to your question… until recently… was “YES, Every Day!”

    Like you, in the past I was a multi tasking, anything is possible, oh you poor thing, just call me anytime, go-to person… as well as a Registered Nurse….caregiver to the world.

    I first realized in my 40s that something I was doing was making me very unhappy but I couldn’t quite figure it out. I started taking spa days to refresh, and studying various self-help books. Over the years I spent lots of money on retreats and self-help seminars, but something was still very wrong.

    It wasn’t until I was physically forced to leave my nursing job and go on disability due to Cardiomyopathy that I truly groom the time and was forced to take stock of how I spent my time and energy to develop new strategies in pacing my life.

    I have found for myself what really helps me is that I never answer Yes or No immediately any more.

    I let people know “I will think about the request” and get back to them. This way I am not being defensive, saying “No” to everything out of fear that it will be too much for me, nor am I saying “Yes” to every request and regretting it.

    I haven’t read the book you suggested but the word you mentioned “centered” is key. In my personal, spiritual and metaphysical training, if we line up our Heart and our Head, and are very silent, centered in our heart and soul, we can know exactly what to do. When you are Centered you do not base decisions on other people’s expectations and old paradigms we were taught about what makes a Good Daughter, Good Wife, Good friend or Good Nurse.

    We often mistake emotional compassion or pity and act wrongly for ourselves and others. With True Compassion, loving selfless compassion the feeling can be felt, the other person benefits greatly just by your feeling towards them and you do not ALWAYS have to “do” something or “fix” something.

    Another helpful trick I use if I am not able to discern the best answer to a request is the following: after I have said I will think about a request, I sit in a chair with my eyes closed and imagine two scenarios: In one scenario I am doing what has been asked of me… in the other scenario I am not doing what has been asked of me… and I notice my very first reaction to each scenario.

    I will immediately feel exhaustion, tiredness, resistance if one of those scenarios is not right for me. The scenario of Yes should be a feeling of joy and power and upliftment… not tiredness, dread and exhaustion.

    I hope these hints can help those still saying “Yes” too often. It is a kind of training that is well worth the effort.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jill, I feel like you’ve just offered us your own self-help intensive here! Thanks so much for sharing so succinctly what you’ve learned over many years. You raised lots of excellent points. My head is exploding!

      I had to laugh out loud at your “caregiver to the world” description: I wonder if that is an occupational hazard of the nursing profession. I worked alongside my nurse friends for many years, where there was a joke among the hospital unit clerks who were trying to fill shifts when somebody called in sick: “The nurse who is puking the least is the one who will offer to come in to help the team.” This sounds funny, except that it’s true.

      I love your advice about not answering yes or no immediately when asked to do something. That’s brilliant, it’s easy, and it’s perfectly reasonable. As is that warning about mixed up emotional compassion, which made me cringe when I read it. It is just as you say: I did not interpret my own physical reaction of “tiredness, dread and exhaustion” (100% accurate in my case!) as a clear signal from my own heart and soul that I was not making good decisions.

      One point I thought of that you didn’t mention here was the eternal question: why is it always so much easier to hear another person’s dilemma and know instantly what they should or shouldn’t do to solve their own problems, compared to figuring out our own?

      Sometimes, it takes a long time to figure this stuff out. Thank you for helping me do just that.


      1. In the Western world we are taught our entire life to look outward to evaluate people, watch out for danger, help others, educate others….
        This is not wrong or bad it is just backwards and when we are constantly looking outside BEFORE we have true inner strength and centeredness ….

        We end up with a false pride in our actions, glamoured that we are indispensable and because our actions aren’t backed with true Spiritual Strength we wear ourselves out mentally and physically.

        Although things like meditation are becoming part of popular culture, the true value of a silent mind in making decisions is not yet valued. Coming from Centered Silence before we even speak a single word…. is very powerful!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you.
    As always your postings are timely for me, and helpful as I continue to learn more about life after SCAD (Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Tobe – life after SCAD can feel far different than life beforehand, especially since SCAD typically strikes (mostly) women who have few (if any) traditional cardiac risk factors. So SCAD survivors often carry the added trauma of utter disbelief that something like this could even happen to them.

      I hope you are doing well…


  5. Hey Carolyn, your post struck a note. Am going through a phase in life where I am transitioning from one job to another — I’m leaving the old one with resentment and feeling unappreciated. “Nobody respects the hard work I put in!” I keep feeling.

    After reading your article, I realize that perhaps I needn’t have worked that hard. I probably should’ve had clearer boundaries and not tried to be a superwoman.

    Hopefully I will remember this lesson in my new job, set clear boundaries and avoid feeling so burnt out! Thanks a ton!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your work example illustrates beautifully how important boundary-setting is in ALL areas of life, PSquared! It reinforces Dr. Gionta’s advice about the need to speak up. At the time, instead of giving the resentment and feeling under-appreciated time to fester for months or even years. At work, there are lots of tasks that we have to do as part of our job description, but this post points to all of the extra burdens we voluntarily take on trying to be SuperWoman. As one of my wise former colleagues once asked me point blank when she observed me taking on lots of extra things that were affecting my health: “What are you trying to prove?” It’s as if I were some kind of passive, willing victim, saying YES (in some cases, feeling flattered that they sought me out to do extra work) and then resenting the people I’d said YES to…

      Good luck in your new job! Remember, No is a complete sentence!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh yes. I should embroider that one on a pillow, because I’m always in danger of forgetting it… As that blog post reminds us (courtesy of the Harvard Business Review, of all people): “Thank them for thinking of you or making the request/invitation. Don’t worry – this does not need to lead to a YES.”

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi, I love your posts. I was diagnosed with MBC (metastatic breast cancer) in April and decided that I needed to take charge of what I could control. I’ve been volunteering for NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness, teaching a family to family course on caregiving and I noticed that on nights when I had a particularly difficult class topic, I wasn’t sleeping.

    So I’m giving that up and also advising a NAMI Club at the college I work at. Something had to give.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Linda – “Something had to give” is such an important observation. Why do we wait until we can’t sleep at night, or get a devastating medical diagnosis, before deciding as you wisely did that it’s important to take charge of what we can control in our lives? Much of life we have no control over, but in this case, you sure did.

      Thanks so much for weighing in with your unique perspective here.


  7. Thank you for this article. I had done this most of my life until July 2015 when I received my atrial fibrillation diagnosis.

    Have been in Sinus Node Dysfunction out of hospital dozens of times. Had 4 ablations that didn’t work. April of this year I decided I had had enough and had the AV node ablation plus Pacemaker.

    I have had to start saying NO and meaning it and letting people think what they want. But I had to do something for “me” without feeling guilty!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such wise advice, Cheryl! When you live with distressing symptoms, despite all those procedures, your focus needs to be on what makes you feel better. I think I have a handle on the ‘saying No’ part – but it’s the guilt that I struggled with

      I hope your pacemaker has made a huge difference in your quality of life since April.


  8. I can relate to your post, Carolyn. Even though I have no chronic, debilitating illness, I try not to over commit myself. If I take on too much, I get stressed and that’s not good for my health. I passionately believe in volunteering, but I have several volunteer activities now and there isn’t room for one more.

    My litmus test is sustainability. Can I keep doing this activity week after week and month after month? Sustainability is most often considered in the environmental realm, but it is equally applicable on an individual basis. Taking care of ourselves is vital and it isn’t selfish to say no.

    We can’t help anyone else if we don’t prioritize taking care of ourselves. As flight attendants advise, “Put your oxygen mask on first and then help the person next to you.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like your sustainability test, Denise. Sometimes when we agree to take on a volunteer role, we honestly don’t know if we’ll still be able to keep doing it months (or years!) down the road.

      A long time ago, after a lifetime of volunteering mostly on non-profit boards of directors (everybody wants a PR person on their non-profit board!), I realized how exhausting it felt after a long hard day of work meetings to hurry across town in rush hour traffic in order to spend two more hours in a long meeting.

      I decided that from then on, I wanted to volunteer in beautiful places, a place where, the moment I walked in, I would feel a surge of joy just being there. (Crammed board rooms rarely fill me with joy, by comparison). Some of my longest and most rewarding volunteer jobs have included volunteering at the concession of a historic theatre (beautiful!) and being a Sunday afternoon garden steward at a gorgeous public garden (also beautiful!)

      It’s when we start dreading showing up for our volunteer role that we need to pay attention. Thanks for sharing that perspective.


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