Learning to say “no”…like you mean it

March 19, 2011 § 7 Comments

It’s Tuesday, March 15th, and I let my phone ring until the caller leaves a message. I don’t recognize the number, and I’m in “the zone” with my chapter. If it’s important, they’ll say so.

“Hey Amanda, it’s M. Listen, I’m going to be out of town on Saturday the 19th for the day, and I was wondering if you and Robert would be able to watch Penelope for me. Give me a call back as soon as you can and let me know. Thanks.”

As I listen to the message (twice), my insides twist up. I don’t want to call M back because I know I will have to deliver a disappointing response. I like M, I really do. He’s a funny guy and really kind. I love Penelope, his Boston terrier (who is no longer a pup but who I’ll always see as an itty-bitty baby, like when I first met her). I know Penny and Milton enjoy each other’s company, and I’m anxious for her to meet Annie. (I figure the more exposure Annie gets to dogs of all sizes, the better socialized she’ll be.) But this is not a good time. In fact, it’s really a rather bad time for us to be watching one more dog.

I take a deep breath and call M back.

“Hey! Did you get my message?” he asks happily, unsuspecting the rejection he’s about to receive.

I try to let him down easy.

“Yeah…about that, M…I just don’t think we can do it this weekend.”

Think??? I chastise myself. Never say think when you know! Lord knows that causes enough confusion!

There’s silence on his side of the phone. My brain frantically tries to rewrite a script, excising all instances of the word “think.”

“It’s just that…well,” I stammer. “My director wants a new chapter draft on Tuesday after break, and I was out of town this past weekend, so I’m really trying to use this coming weekend to make up for the lack of work I did.”

He’s still silent, so I just keep rambling, my tone reaching a higher octave, and…laughing? Why was I laughing?

“Heh, you know…to be honest, I haven’t even written it yet!”

LIAR! I shout internally. J’accuse! You have too written on it! Why are you lying to him??

Finally, he speaks.

“So, you’re graduating this May?” The light-hearted tone that I’ve come to characterize with M has entirely left his voice.

Shit. It dawns on me: I was probably his last or only option. Shit, shit, shit!

“No,” I titter.

Seriously, am I tittering??

I clear my throat. “No. I’m graduating in August.”

“Oh.” It’s such a pregnant “oh”…so filled with meaning…and is that judgment I hear? Or am I projecting judgment onto him from my own guilt?

Oh, God, I hate this!

“Yeah…but this weekend is really bad for us. It’s not Penny, of course–we adore her! It’s just that Annie is potty-trained and all, but sometimes she still has accidents if we don’t get to her fast enough. And because I’m writing all the time, Robert’s really been in charge of taking care of the animals…and I just can’t ask him to keep an eye on Annie and watch Milton and Penny, too. I am so sorry.”

I think I overemphasized the “so”…he’ll think it’s not sincere…. Shit.

“Oh, that’s okay.”

We chat for a few more minutes about his plan for Saturday–a day-trip, really; he’d be home before dark, so Penny wouldn’t become an overnight guest–until I just can’t stand to be on the phone with this awkwardness any more. I make up an excuse, and we hang up.

My insides are twisted and knotted, and I feel a little like I could throw up. All I did was say “no” to someone, and you’d think I suddenly became Pontius Pilate and delivered him a death sentence.

Fast forward to last night….

“Oh, baby, I forgot to tell you. Mom texted me and has invited us over for a steak dinner tomorrow night. I didn’t respond yet because I wanted to talk to you about it first.” Robert is so considerate to wait to talk to me first, even when making plans with his mom.

But then my insides twist up again.

Robert reads the expression on my face and immediately reverts into what is quickly becoming a stand-by response in our house: reassure Amanda before she has a chance to freak out that she is in no way expected to be social right now.

“I can’t,” is all I can muster out.

“That’s okay! We don’t have to go,” Robert reassures me, kissing me on the forehead.

Wait! My insides are suddenly twisting into more violent contortions. That’s not what I want!

“No, no.” I shake my head. “No, you should go. I don’t want your mom to think that we’re avoiding them or that we’re only making time for my family [i.e. the BBQ we attended last weekend]. Someone should go as the ambassador for this branch of the Habs!”

Robert agrees, and you would think that would be the end of it. Oh no, self-inflicted mental torture is one of my specialities.

A few hours later, we’re lying in bed, starting to fall asleep, and I conclude our day with, “I just don’t want to be bad daughter-in-law. I already feel like a terrible wife. I don’t want your mom or dad to hate me or think that I don’t like seeing them. I feel awful.”

All Robert can do is squeeze my hand, remind me that I’m not any of those things or in danger of any of those things, and wish me good night. I fall asleep soon after he does.

On Wednesday, after I had to let M down about dog-sitting for him, V and I met at the coffee shop to work. I told her about my encounter and subsequent guilt. Her succinct response was perfect: “You and I will just have to learn to embrace saying no right now.”

That’s it!

Although I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say that I’m a people-pleaser, I do want everyone to generally be happy (at least with me and what I’m doing). [On second thought, that might be exactly what people-pleasing is….] I want to be seen as someone who has her ducks all in a row and can hold everything together effortlessly. I don’t want anyone to have a reason to judge me. I want to be the kind of person that I see in other people.

But what writing this dissertation has taught me is that I absolutely must become comfortable with the exposure of my flaws and shortcomings. Sure, I can sit here and rattle them off to you fine folks–I myself am well aware of the precise ways in which I fail so spectacularly. But that doesn’t mean I want other people to be likewise aware. It is much better for me if I feel that others look at me and think, “Amanda’s all right. She’s doing just fine.” I don’t know what I’m afraid of if they were to see the truth in my failings, but it is a fear I’m coming to grips with now.

While I write this dissertation, I have had to prioritize.

Dissertation over teaching. Done.
Dissertation over weight loss. Done.
Dissertation over social life. Done.
Dissertation over romance. Sigh.
Dissertation over family. Ugh.
Dissertation over ALL. Sob.

And we can see the degeneration–I am getting to a place of utter and bitter resentment toward this project. I want to prioritize my life in other ways. But I lived that way last year, with my dissertation taking the priority I believed it should have taken…and my progress suffered.

These next few months, on the road to graduation, I am learning to say “no.” And I have to at least sound like I mean it, even if on the inside I’m cringing, wrestling with guilt, and begging for forgiveness.

(For the record, though, I have a pretty good start on this chapter. I’m sneaking on 20 pages, and should hit around 35 by Monday, if all goes according to plan. And then the grading marathon will begin!)

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§ 7 Responses to Learning to say “no”…like you mean it

  • AMo says:

    All those people you think are so together? They know how to say no- and not feel guilty about it. They aren’t holding it together because they say yes to everything. I’m proud of you for embracing the need to say no. šŸ™‚ love and hugs!

    • Mrs. H. says:

      That’s an excellent point, A.Mo. Who can hold it all together when they’re being pulled in many directions? Now to deal with the guilt…lol. Thanks for the great perspective! šŸ™‚

  • Lisa Kramer says:

    Amanda, “No” can be one of the most terrifying and freeing words in the English language. You are not failing anyone, but you are accepting that you are not superhuman. Good for you! However, I have one request that I refuse to take “No” for an answer. Add this to your list of priorities: A. Hab being kind to herself over dissertation at least once a week. Yes! Then, work on your chapter, get it done and plan a romantic quiet evening alone with Robert sometime this week. It is important to give yourself those little rewards.

    From your friend who learned the hard way

  • Tori Nelson says:

    I found out how to say a big ‘ol NOOOO last year after having my son. IT. FEELS. GREAT!

  • I agree with Lisa, saying no is necessary, but remember to give yourself little rewards, so you don’t get burnt out!

    You are an inspiration, Amanda! Keep up the good work! I struggle with this all the time and am such a people pleaser anyway that saying no is very hard for me…

  • Lisa Kramer says:

    I just started “researching” some more about women in the hopes it might spark me on this project that I’ve been thinking about. I’m reading this (somewhat dated) book called LITERARY WOMEN: THE GREAT WRITERS by Ellen Moers. I read the following passage, which made me think of your post today as well as the fact that many things for women have not changed as much as we would like: “No-saying, for a woman writer, is not quite the same unimportant thing it is for a man.” 916-17) Food for thought.

  • Tim says:

    I’m right there in the same boat – if I have to say “no,” my insides knot up like speaker cables behind an entertainment center. It’s even worse when plans have to change for whatever reason, because then I feel like I’m actively letting someone down rather than just saying “no” to begin with. All the same, I’ve been gradually learning the importance of saying “no,” too.

    Mom always found it impossible to say “no,” and it probably contributed to her death, because even when she was in the middle of her cancer therapy and truly had no time to spare for the people who wanted her time, she couldn’t bring herself to say no, and her therapy suffered for it. That’s kind of an extreme example, but it made me realize that every person you say “yes” to is literally taking a piece of your life away that you will never get back. There are times when it is worthwhile to give away a piece of our lives, if for no other reason than the sense of well-being helping someone else gives, but there are times (like writing a dissertation or doing an intensive nutritional cancer therapy) when giving away a piece of your life is far too costly. Hopefully, we can both accept this lesson (we’ve obviously already learned it, but it’s still hard to accept it to the point that you no longer feel that stomach-knotting sensation).

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