Dear Rachel,

My entire life I've had a hard time saying "no" to people. But now everyone assumes that I am always available and don't even seem to notice that I am doing them favors. And when I need something, no one even offers. What should I do?

Jennifer G.
Los Angeles, CA

Dear Jennifer,

There are really two issues here. There's the fact that you feel that you're being taken advantage of by those who are constantly asking you for favors. And then there's the issue of what you're expecting other people to do for you in return.

If doing it makes you resentful, hurt, bitter or feel used, then it is no favor

Let's discuss the first issue first. You say that you have a hard time saying "no" to people, so that you end up always doing others favors when you really don't want to.

It sounds to me that what's happening here is that when someone asks you to do them a favor, you often perceive the request not so much as a question, but more like a demand with a question mark at the end. Meaning, you don't feel that you're being asked to do the favor, but rather than you're being told to do it. You then agree, albeit reluctantly, because you don't feel we have the option to refuse.

But a favor is only a favor when it is something nice that you are doing to help out someone else. If doing it makes you resentful, hurt, bitter or feel used, then you are not doing the other person a "favor" and you are certainly doing no favor to yourself.

In Jewish law, there is model for this concept. We have the mitzvah of tzedakah, of giving charity. The word "mitzvah" means both "good deed" and "commandment" — a mitzvah is a good deed that we're supposed to do. But Jewish law sets parameters for the mitzvah of charity. We are obligated to give no less than 10% of our income to charity, but no more than 20%. As for that How can you tell when to say "no?" As long as you are willing and happy to help, say "yes" additional ten percent between 10% and 20%, Torah law states that you should only give it only if it is something that you choose to do and really want to do. If giving that "extra" charity makes you resent or regret the fact that you have an obligation to give charity, then you are not allowed to do so since it is counterproductive.

In other words, we have three level of charity. 1) the minimum 10% that we should give, whether we feel like it or not. 2) extra charity, up to 20%, that we should give only if we truly desire to. 3) excessive charity, or more than 20%, which we're told not to give (except under certain extreme circumstances)

While favors obviously can't be measured as precisely as dollars in the bank, I think we have a model here that could be applied to that kind of charity as well. There is a certain "minimum" amount of favors that we do for others, similar to the 10% of charity that we are obligated to give. However, to go above and beyond that with our favors is not a positive thing if it could lead to a reaction where we want to stop doing favors for people altogether.

How can you tell when to say "no?" As long as you are willing and happy to help, say "yes." The moment you beginning feeling that "everyone feels you are available" or that "no one recognizes you are doing favors" it is time to say "no." As it sounds, you may need to take a little break from doing favors and focus a little more on yourself right now, and then slowly begin saying "yes" as you are ready.

It's not a favor when the person owes you something in return

As for the other issue you bring up — that no one seems to help you out when you need it — that, too, is a problem. But the problem is not so much that they are not helping you, but that you are expecting it. If you are doing someone a favor so that they will do a favor for you in return, then it's not a favor. It is only a favor when you are doing something for the sake of helping out the other person. As soon as you do something for something in return, it becomes a trade-off. It's not a favor when the person owes you something in return.

You are right, ideally when you help people, they should be willing to help you as well when you need their help. But if they don't, it is their problem and a reflection of them. Your problem is only when you expect it.

For now, just remember that you have the right to say "no" to a question that is asked. If you can help, and you are not resentful in doing so, then by all means say "yes." But bear in mind that when you say "yes" you are owed nothing in return. You are doing a favor. And doing a good deed is all the reward you should need.

Rachel