A rock-star client recently asked me how to relax without guilt. The problem is that she’s a go-to for everyone, and attributes much of her success to her willingness to always be of service. Not only does this leave little time for relaxation, but whenever she tries to make time for herself she feels like she’s being selfish (and feels guilty about it).
In my experience, most high-achievers don’t know how to relax without guilt. And there are several reasons for that:
- You worry that you won’t be as successful, and
- You think that you’ll be letting others down (because you’ll have to say no more often).
And so you end up feeling guilty any time you try to relax (as if you’re being selfish).
But that’s unsustainable. You need to take time for rest and renewal so that you don’t burn out. But how do you learn how to relax without guilt (or feeling the need to apologize)? And is it really possible to say no without feeling guilty too?
This is what we’re getting into today. Because the truth is that you CAN relax without guilt, shame or apology (and even feel good about it).
And to help you with this, I recommend downloading my free Own Your Awesome Guide, which tackles how to overcome impostor syndrome, regain your confidence and tame your inner critical voice.
Table of Contents
The Importance of Saying No
Although you know you need to say “no” (at least some of the time), your desire to serve others makes you feel selfish or mean any time you do. It’s time to understand a few things about what boundaries really are.
What Boundaries Are + Their Purpose
Unfortunately, there’s a common misconception around boundaries that has you focusing on their effect on other people. The misconception is that boundaries are about saying “no”.
Boundaries aren’t really about saying “no” and they’re definitely not about other people. A boundary is a rule for how you must be treated by others. They’re about your mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. And that means that they’re an act of self-care and self-respect.
Setting and enforcing healthy boundaries is about putting yourself first (which is much of the problem). How uncomfortable does that statement make you? The fact is that you’ve never put yourself first because you believe it to be selfish. I want to stop that right now…
Putting yourself first is about ensuring you’re at your best so that you can be your best for everyone and everything else. What’s selfish about that?
[Recommended Reading: For more about self-care and self-prioritization guilt and how to combat it, discover 5 Reasons You Feel Guilty About Taking Care of Yourself (and What To Do About It)].
A Lesson On How to Say “No” With More Ease
There’s a nasty four-letter word behind your inability to say “no”: FEAR. You fear what others will think, that they might get mad at you, and how they’ll react. Your fear has you focusing on the external stuff instead of the internal reasons for why you must set and maintain your own boundaries.
Instead of obsessing over the external stuff, focus on your reason for having boundaries. Adopt the mentality that your boundaries are rules for how you expect to be treated and that setting and maintaining them is an act of self-respect.
Moreover, make it easier by following the following strategies when it comes to setting and enforcing your boundaries:
Pay attention when hearing and/or saying “no”.
People say “no” all the time without any negative consequences. Pay attention and bring awareness to that. This will help decrease your fear around saying it. And when someone does react negatively, you’ll notice that the consequences aren’t all that severe anyway.
Back up your boundaries with clear rules.
Your boundaries are set for a reason, so be clear to yourself and others about your reasons behind your boundaries. This will help you to be more prepared to say no.
Be clear and don’t over-explain.
Although “no” usually isn’t a complete sentence (it’s rude to just say “no” in response to most requests), don’t go into a long-winded explanation. Doing this opens the door for new arguments to poke holes in your reasoning (and makes you look weak). A one-sentence “no” briefly explaining the rule behind your boundary is sufficient.
Stay the course.
For the pesky folks who don’t take the first (or second) “no” for an answer, it’s fine to sound like a broken record. Keep saying “no” the same way until they give up. They’re looking for a way in by getting you to over-explain, so don’t give it to them.
[Recommended Reading: For even more on this topic, read How to Say No Without Guilt (Step-By-Step Instructions)].
3 Tips to Help You Relax Without Guilt
Now that you understand the importance of boundaries and how to enforce them, it’s time to start dealing with the guilt you feel when it comes to relaxing. Because setting boundaries to free up more time for yourself isn’t going to do you much good if you don’t use that time for relaxation and renewal.
Here are three tips to help you relax without guilt:
Tip #1: Change Your Mindset
It’s imperative that you change your mindset around why you need to relax. And part of that is to acknowledge the benefits of relaxation. When you take time to yourself for rest and renewal, you’re improving your mental and physical health (both in the short-term and in the long-term). There are numerous short-term physical benefits, including:
- reduction of stress-related hormones;
- decrease of your heart and breathing rate (which also lowers stress levels);
- blood flow to your muscles increases; and
- blood pressure is lowered.
These physical health benefits have an impact on your cognitive abilities. When your stress levels are lower and your body is working properly, you’ll have a better attention span, be more likely to think clearly and creatively, and will have better reasoning skills. All of this improves your overall performance.
When relaxation becomes a habit, stress levels become naturally lower (regardless of how hectic life gets) and you’ll feel physically and mentally better. Thus, learning to relax is a long-term investment in your most important asset: yourself. An investment that reaps big rewards.
How to Change Your Thoughts
Your thoughts and feelings are interconnected. A thought creates a feeling (and vise versa), and those are what convince you to take action (or do nothing).
Contrary to what many people think, you can change your thoughts. And that means that you can re-train your brain to think differently about rest and renewal (and about saying “no”) so that you feel good about it instead of guilty or selfish. Here’s how to get started:
- Prioritize awareness. If you want to change your thoughts and the beliefs behind them, then you must first become aware of what they are. Instead of ignoring or pretending that you don’t have them (or trying to push through with willpower to do something differently) bring your thoughts into the open and name them. Sit with your thoughts and beliefs and get clear around what’s going on in your thinking that has you feeling so guilty about relaxing and/or saying “no”.
- Ask questions. Once you’ve identified your negative thinking, ask questions that lead to fruitful answers. Get curious about evidence to the contrary and how you might counteract this belief. For example, (a) if you have trouble saying “no” to a colleague ask yourself “How will saying “no” help them?” or (b) if you’re feeling guilty when relaxing, ask yourself “How will this time help me be more creative, productive, and fruitful in my work and at home?”.
The exercise above gives rise to a line of inquiry that will support the mental shift you’re trying to make. It creates new thoughts around relaxation and saying “no” that support your ability to do so when needed.
[Recommended Reading: Why Mindset Is Everything: The Key to Success & Happiness].
Tip #2: Look for Evidence
Your second tip for how to relax without guilt is to look for evidence that supports relaxation. This tip helps to further support the required mental shift discussed in Tip #1.
To implement Tip #2, start by looking to your own life. Here’s what to do:
- Review your past (both recently and the long-term) and identify what you’ve done for relaxation. NOTE: only include activities that are clearly for relaxation purposes. Fun activities that don’t relax you do not count (partying late with your friends doesn’t go on this list).
- Don’t forget to include simple things such as sleeping, napping, and reading a recreational book.
- On a piece of paper, write down the type of relaxation activity and time spent relaxing.
- Analyze the effect of each activity on your mental and physical health, your cognitive abilities (both at work and within your personal life), your mood, and your productivity levels.
Also, look to people you admire who are successful and pay attention to how they relax and the benefits of their relaxation activities. I recommend keeping a journal to track all of your relaxation benefits going forward (until relaxation becomes a long-term habit).
As you start to make more connections between renewal activities and how well you perform, it will get easier to prioritize relaxation. And your guilt will start to melt away.
[Recommended Reading: Confidence-Building Activities (To Believe In Yourself, Achieve More)].
Tip #3: Close Open-Ended Loops
What repetitive tasks do you have that never end? Do you have long-term projects that haven’t been broken into manageable short-term tasks and activities? These type of tasks and activities are what create open-ended loops within your mind. Open-ended loops are activities that don’t have an end-point or an end in sight. Some examples are:
- Checking and responding to email (a never-ending activity that always seems urgent but is often not a priority);
- Pushing a long-term project forward that’s easy to get lost in without setting clear guidelines and deadlines around what you want to accomplish that day; and
- Researching a new idea without an end-goal of where you’re going (or when to stop).
The problem with these open-ended loops is that, because there’s no clear deadline or stopping point, you tend to get caught up in them and feel like you must keep going (even when you don’t need to). Because of this, open activities create guilt around stopping them (or not doing them).
How to Close Open-Ended Activities and Tasks
Closing open-ended tasks is primarily about proper prioritization and learning to utilize sound productivity strategies. Close the open-ended loops on large projects by:
- Breaking them into small, manageable tasks with deadlines. Your deadline can be time-based or outcome-based, depending on what makes most sense. However, be certain that you’ve broken them into small enough pieces to make them manageable and do-able in a short period of time (preferably within a couple of hours and no longer than one day).
- Committing only to what can be done in one day, keeping built-in breaks for renewal in mind. When breaking your large projects into smaller tasks, be sure that they’re manageable and can be done in one day (or less).
- Stopping when you get to the predetermined end-point and moving on to your next priority.
I recommend keeping two lists: (1) a daily to-do list with only those things that you’ll be working on that day; and (2) a larger list of projects and activities (think of this as your “not now” list). Your daily to-do list should be set at the beginning of each day, after briefly reviewing your calendar and list of long-term projects.
With respect to email and other daily tasks, set regular times in your calendar to check, prioritize, file, and respond. Block time to work on longer projects and don’t check email during those time periods.
Productivity requires proper prioritization. And that’s what we’re talking about today! Because your first priority must be you.
At the end of the day, prioritization (and hence productivity) is all about your mentality and what you choose to prioritize as a result. Your mindset shift goes hand in hand with becoming peacefully productive.
Wrapping It All Up: How to Relax Without Guilt By Changing Your Mentality and Habits
Let’s review your next steps to saying “no” and relaxing without guilt:
- Change your thoughts around relaxing and saying “no” by becoming aware of what they are (and the beliefs behind them) and posing questions around the benefits of doing what you want/need to be doing.
- Look for evidence to support the benefits of relaxing.
- Close all open-ended tasks so that you don’t feel obligated to keep working on things that don’t have to be done in the moment.
- Properly prioritize your tasks and learn how to seamlessly incorporate sound productivity strategies into your life so that you’re as productive as possible (making it even easier to relax without feeling selfish or guilty).
Follow these steps and you’ll soon find that you’re less stressed and more relaxed without the guilt. Plus, you’ll be more productive too!
P.S. Don’t forget to download the Own Your Awesome Guidebook to help you regain your confidence, overcome impostor syndrome and tame your inner critical voice. Grab it here: