Everyone wanted a piece of her, and how could she refuse? Then one day—sick, in tears, and totally overwhelmed—the actress realized the value of one simple word: no.
I respect people who work hard and juggle well. But at some point, you've got to figure out that six balls in the air might be too many, so try two.

I learned that lesson last December. I had just returned to New York after filming The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Botswana for four months, and I got sick. An awful stomach virus took me down so hard that I couldn't leave my couch for days. The illness really should have been a period of forced relaxation. But even though I wasn't physically leaving the house, I was mentally leaving it, because I was still fretting about my work. Since I had just returned to the States, I was getting phone calls left and right. That may not sound particularly taxing, but when you're on the verge of exhaustion, taxing is subjective—even talking to the FedEx man to give him directions to your apartment can be taxing!

I was feeling overwhelmed, and when I was invited to sing at a fund-raiser in New York, I forgot to respond. I heard that they were going to replace me, and my survival instinct kicked in. Even though I needed to slow down, I just couldn't because my mind-set was: You have responsibilities. This is your job. Do it. Do it. Do it. So I started rearranging my schedule. I had a trip to Vietnam planned, and I began making calls to reschedule it.

But every time I picked up the phone to change that vacation, I started crying. And I thought, "It's very special to be able to do what I do, and it's a blessing. Performing is the only thing I've ever done, and I'm crying over this gift—the thing I love." I realized in that moment that I was operating out of fear—the fear that if I didn't continue putting myself out there, all of a sudden I wouldn't exist in entertainment anymore. But what would happen if I missed one event? Nothing. Somehow in the whirlwind that had been my life for the past five years, my moorings had loosened.

So I just stopped. I didn't postpone my trip to Vietnam, because I realized: How often would I have an opportunity like that? Maybe not for years, but I will be able to sing a song onstage again. Instead of rearranging my life for work, I said no. I turned down projects. I took naps. I healed. I said no to save my health, my peace of mind and my life. It's so natural to say no that it's one of the first words babies learn. It may be one of the most important tools in our linguistic arsenal.

As told to Crystal G. Martin

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