by Denise Riebman

Recently, I declined politely (or so I thought) to provide free career advising for a former student I hadn’t seen or spoken to in 10 years—and ended up feeling shamed by her response to my turning down her request. If she had wanted to reconnect or have an informational interview about the career coaching field, I would have agreed; if she was a close friend or family member, I would have happily provided career coaching; if she was a client at one of the places where I provide pro bono career assistance for homeless, immigrant, and refugee communities, I would have unequivocally said yes.

However, as I’m balancing a full-time job directing a career center and a part-time career coaching business where clients pay for my services, I chose to say no to her request. Her response felt like “no shaming.” She wrote about her global work and family obligations but noted that she still finds time to assist others. She told me that we have a difference in ideas and in our willingness to help.

I questioned my decision to say no until I drew on my positive psychology training to shift from No Shaming to Yes Living. Here’s how …

Take a mindful pause. I had a strong visceral reaction to feeling shamed—face burned, stomach flipped, shoulders dropped in disappointment—and for a few moments, I allowed these sensations to wash over me until my mindfulness practice kicked in. I breathed in slowly and recalled Viktor Frankel’s words: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” As each inhale became deeper, I knew that I didn’t need to stay with the shame. I chose self-compassion for my decision to protect my time, respect what I need to stay healthy, and honor my business values.

Know what you want to say yes to. Through priceless advice from a career coaching colleague, Karen Chopra, I have learned to first know what I want to say yes to—which, in turn, makes it much easier to know what to say no to for healthy life boundaries. Build your Yes List by finding what contributes to your professional flow, identifying your positivity primers and recognizing which relationships bring you the greatest happiness. Then, when new opportunities are presented—work, activities, people—it becomes intuitive to say yes to what enhances your whole-being flourishing.

Extend permission to others. I often mention Tal Ben-Shahar’s phrase “Permission to Be Human” as a reminder of positive psychology’s emphasis on experiencing the full range of emotions. However, in this situation, I realized that I needed to apply this toward my former student. Maybe she was in work crisis or didn’t think this was a big ask or was overextended at home. Giving her permission to be human helps me to compassionately believe that she didn’t mean for me to feel “no shamed” by her response.

I can only hope that, if she reads this post, she will graciously admire my decision to support my life balance, professional integrity, and personal well-being.

Denise Riebman is a career development specialist who applies a strength-based, positive psychology framework toward inspiring individuals to find career happiness. She is Director of Career Development and Alumni Services at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School, and founder of Denise holds a Certificate in Positive Psychology and additional certification from Global Career Development Facilitation, Presence-Based Coaching, and The Coaches Institute.