Let me explain.
First off, I have been known to say "maybe" to things when I really want to say no, which is something people catch on to after awhile. I also rely heavily on "excuses." My excuses are rarely untrue, but they are excuses nonetheless, and include the following:
I can't because ... I have a headache.
I can't because ... I am already committed to something else.
I can't because ... I will be out of town.
Excuses are wonderful things. They have often allowed me to say no without feeling like I was saying no. Saying "I can't" is so much better than saying "I won't" -- no guilt! When one of these excuses is given, the impression I hope to give is that I WOULD do the thing I'm being asked to do, that I WANT to do it, but that, through no fault of my own, I CAN'T. (So sorry!) For a crazy-face like me, who is ridiculous about saying no, this is wonderfully relaxing. Excuses mean I don't have to say no. Being unavailable is not my fault! No one can blame me, or be angry, or push back against my desires, because my answer is not about desires! Hurray! It's out of my hands!
I mean, I hate the fact that I suffer from a lot of serious headaches, but at least they get me out of things, right?
This behaviour is, to put it mildly, fucked up.
In my own defense, I will say that my experiences with saying no haven't been all that positive, and this hasn't helped matters. I mean, you've read the blog, you know my family is seriously cray cray, so saying no to relatives (or, you know, having feelings of any kind) has never been easy. But even with friends, even with acquaintances, it's been difficult. I don't like conflict. Or arguing. Yet, I feel dragged into conflict-based interactions whenever I try to assert myself. This is why I find it so much easier to default to a position of "yes" or even better, "I wish I could, but ..."
Don't believe me? Take, for example, a version of this exchange, which is exaggerated, but which I promise you, takes place regularly in my life:
Pushy Pusherman: Hey Jen! Can you help me with this thing? It's a great idea, right?"
Jen: Um, no. I can't. Sorry.
PP: "Don't worry, it'll be easy."
Jen: "Yeah... but still, no."
PP: "But it's a great idea! What are your reservations? WHY won't you do what I want?"
Jen: "Oh, lots of reasons... [insert at least one or two gentle ones, but never the most important reason which is I DON'T WANT TO.]"
PP: Those aren't good reasons! It's a great idea! I want you to do it because ... [insert reasons that are primarily selfish and do not take into account the fact that I ALREADY SAID NO.]
PP: So, you'll do it right?
PP: I think you should Come on, do it.
PP: Keep an open mind. Let's brainstorm a way to make this work.
Jen: Sorry, but it just doesn't work for me, under any circumstances.
PP: I'm sure we can work this out. [Read: So I can get what I want. My feelings are more important than yours!]
Jen: Okay ... maybe. We'll see. [Or worse-still - "yes."]
Inevitably, I end up doing things I don't want to do because of conversations that are just like this one -- conversations in which my initial "no" is flat-out ignored.
These questions keep me awake at night, and again -- that's fucked up. Because you KNOW Pushy Pusherman isn't lying awake at night. Pushy Pusherman is sleeping like a baby because Pushy Pusherman is an egomaniac who almost always gets what she/he wants.
I suppose it's partially my fault. I give in. But I wonder, is there something about me that bullies can sense, just by looking? Do they know that if they push, push again, and then push some more, I will cave? How do they know? There seems to be something magical and intangible about me that screams, "Don't respect my boundaries, just push! I will give in eventually because I hate arguments and I'm always willing to put my own wants and needs behind the wants and needs of someone who's willing to fight me."
It must be at least partially my fault. I've set a precedent. And I've done it consciously, because sometimes, I find myself reasoning, "Well, this person is willing to be incredibly pushy, so it must really matter to him/her. I'm NOT willing to be incredibly pushy, so it obviously doesn't matter that much to me. I should give in. I mean, if I am to believe this Pushy Pusherman attitude, this person cares A LOT. My attitude says that this request is not all that important to me. Ergo, what I want must objectively be less important than what they want. I should give in." And give in, I do.
And then the endless lending of stuff, doing of favours, attending of events and maintaining of relationships that I don't give a shit about exhausts me and I end up feeling resentful and grumpy and put upon. I start getting more stress headaches, which (at least) gets me out of things for awhile and allows me to have a break.
This is a bad cycle, stemming, I suppose, from a variety of bad attitudes. And I've heard all the criticisms and little nuggets of wisdom before, so don't bother telling me I have to "put myself first" or "fight for what I want" or "be tough." Thanks, but that sort of advice is unhelpful and misses the point. I don't want to FIGHT for what I want. I don't want to fight at all. I want people to respect that what I want is valuable, that when I say no, I have my reasons, and that my feelings are important. Why should I have to FIGHT for that? WHY???
But okay, I get it. I can't change other people, I can only change myself. So to begin with, what I'm wondering is this: How can I change that weird thing about me that seems to invite people to push into a thing that makes them instinctively understand that no means no. HOW?
Some progress has been made. A few years ago, when explaining to my friend Steve that I felt I couldn't stop hanging out with certain people (let's call them "friends") without offering a good explanation, he helped me understand that an explanation wasn't owed. "If you don't want to be friends with someone, don't be friends with them," he said. "If you don't want to argue about it, don't argue. The relationship isn't working for you, you've given [name redacted] notice that you wanted things to change, they've ignored you. What else can you do? Maybe they won't like it, but that's not your problem."
Finally, finally - something resonated. If I say no, and someone gets upset, that's not my problem. It's not even my fault! How they feel isn't more important than how I feel. And if I let the situation continue, I'm enabling them. I'm letting them continue to behave in the ways they have always behaved. I'm saying okay to a situation that works for them, but that does not work for me. I may choose to do that, and if so, fine, but it hardly makes sense to complain about it if I do, right? RIGHT.
This revelation came, as I said, a few years ago. And at the time I thought, "I'm finally growing up!" Alas, while I got up the nerve to "unfriend" people and change some relationships as a result, overall, I'm still a pushover. And worse, I still feel guilty and upset about how people have responded to me putting myself first. When they've been angry, I've felt terrible. When they've argued, I've been contrite. In other words, I thought I'd experienced a revelation, and I thought significant progress would result, but all I'd really taken was a baby step.
And WAY WAY more importantly, this happened: To a person who regularly says hurtful things to me, over the phone I said, "You know what? These things are hurtful. If you continue to say these things, and refuse to apologize, I'm not going to spend time with you anymore. Simple." Shockingly (although, why should I be shocked?) this has not gone over all that well. Hurty Hurtfulson told me to "let it go" and to "just stop being angry" etc., but wonderfully, happily, I didn't let her make me angry and I didn't give in! I calmly (okay, relatively calmly - my voice was shaking a bit) restated my position, which was this: "I'm not angry. I'm hurt. You are saying hurtful things. Stop or the consequence will be no contact with me." When she tried to argue again, cut her off, saying "Sorry, but this is the way it is. Deal with it." And then I hung up. And it felt GREAT. Great great great!!! It felt great to name my terms and be calm about enforcing them. Why didn't I do this sooner? Why wasn't I able to?
The experience was so positive, I've managed to keep the ball rolling. To those who regularly borrow things from me, I've started setting conditions -- simple, basic conditions, but never-before-verbalized. For example: "If you borrow something, I want it returned in the same condition it was in when you took it." In other words, if something was clean when borrowed, I want it clean when it's returned. (Simple request, right? But soooo hard for me to make. And you would not believe how often I get stuff back that is dirty.) As with Hurty Hurfulson, The Borrowers are pushing back. It's a new day and I suppose they're just not used to me setting terms, but instead of giving in when said Borrowers have presented reasons why they might not be able to meet my terms, I've been able to say "Sorry, but these are the conditions. You can borrow it, but I want it back the way I want it back. If you can't handle that, you can't borrow it. Simple." And I haven't felt panicked, which has been my default sensation in situations like this for years. If The Borrowers don't comply, and I have to say no in future as a result, that's cool. I think I feel okay with that.
So does this mean I'm finally growing up? Have I FINALLY fundamentally begun to understand what I can control and what I can't? Are my emotions finally catching up with my rational brain?
Want to ask for something or do something? That's up to you. If I feel like saying no or not putting up with it for any reason, that's up to me. You feel angry about that? Again, that's up to you. Letting your anger change my behaviour? That's up to me. It's. So. Simple.
I don't want to let the ball stop rolling on my new-found confidence in these matters, so any advice would be helpful. How do I keep saying no and keep feeling cool when people push back? Don't let me drop the ball on this one, blog-friends. This is a major step in my mental/emotional development.