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Weeks into the new school year and already feeling frenzied, fried and frazzled, I’d signed up for yet another activity when a friend asked a question.

“You know it’s OK if you say ‘No’ sometimes?” she said.

No? I know how to articulate the word “no” — like “toe” except with an “n” — but like most over-extended, guilty moms I struggle to say it. Saying “no” may let people down and that feels icky. The perfectionist, do-it-all overachiever in me loathes the idea of letting anyone down.

And even when I try to set limits, I fail. Last year, I stepped down as PTO vice president at my son’s elementary school after two years on the board to insert some breathing room in my relentless schedule.

In a matter of months, I’d filled my plate again — and made my schedule even busier. Now I’m both the den mom of my son’s Cub Scouts pack after the previous one resigned and room mom for second grade. So much for setting limits.

It’s hard to say “no.” There can be repercussions: People may not like you. And that’s hard for those, especially for women, who want to be liked.

Technology makes it even harder to set limits, especially at work. With cellphones and laptops, we’re accessible around the clock. We’re never really officially “off the clock.”

Gabriella van Rij, a speaker and author who also describes herself as a kindness expert, suggests three steps for not over-extending yourself. The first step is simply acknowledging your limits, she writes. The second is learning to delegate.

“Stop thinking that you are the only one that has the answer to the solution. Enrolling the help of others at work will not be seen as a weakness,” writes van Rij in a piece for LinkedIn.

The final step, according to van Rij, is to stop apologizing for who you are. And that’s important, she says.

“If apologizing has become your knee-jerk reaction, whether for the job, for the meal, or for your kids, chances are you are undermining yourself and you don’t know it,” she writes.

Still, my philosophy has always been someone has to step up to the plate when things need to be done. If I don’t step up, who will?

Maybe, though, there’s another option: The Earth won’t stop turning on its axis if I don’t offer to fill the latest vacancy on the school committee, bring the snack for the class party or volunteer for the next field trip. Maybe things will organically fall in place even if I don’t swoop into the rescue? I’m often too nervous to find out.

But saying “no” and setting limits is like a muscle. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

And the truth is we are all works in progress. Setting limits is as much about letting go of perfectionism as maintaining boundaries.

Years ago, my perfectionism bubbled up like a hot tray of homemade macaroni and cheese — literally. Determined to make my daughter’s birthday party “perfect,” I made all the food from scratch, including a delicious spinach and artichoke macaroni and cheese recipe from Rachael Ray. I didn’t matter that my daughter couldn’t have a bite of this dish (she was too little at the time). Her party was going to be perfect and I had the macaroni to prove it.

Just minutes before our guests arrived, I was stressed out, sweating and miserable, but I had homemade macaroni and cheese.

Fast forward nine years and I know now that Rachael Ray isn’t the secret to a great party. We’ll survive — and be just as happy — with pizza. I’m setting limits and saying no. And we’ll still be OK, even me.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mfeighan

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