Socially functional, but introverted. (Check)
People pleaser. (Check)
Unable to say “no”. (Check)
Those three elements are a recipe for disaster.
For years before I had babies, these three worked together to give me a vibrant, if exhausting, social and professional life. Whether among friends and the activities we did together, or at work, I felt an obligation to always agree to whatever was offered.
This feeling of obligation came from a deeply rooted sense that I didn’t deserve anyone’s kindness, therefore I should vacuum whatever crumbs of attention I could get. Therefore, I let other people arrange my calendar for me. I didn’t know how to say, “I would rather not have five nights of activities in a week…” so I ended up exhausted and overextended. I would tell myself, “this is just for a season…” but those seasons would extend for months and months and years and I was tired and grumpy all the time.
For some reason, this grumpiness was preferable to learning how to set limits and boundaries and taking control back over my own calendar.
In my Ideal Life
I am a person who…
- only commits to things that make me feel alive
- knows how to say no
- doesn’t oblige someone else’s folly
- steps back from responsibility at the right time
- doesn’t dread social engagements
- can be supportive without getting involved
- has her priorities straight
In the past, I had tried to extricate myself from various activities. Because I am who I am (that is, a mildly talented and extremely conscientious creative-type) my departure was, in certain situations, not well received. Relationship problems, confrontations (did I mention I hate confrontation?), guilt…
I have just one memory of when it went well, and, surprise, surprise, it was with The Best Boss in The World, who showed me how a healthy, normal person, one who cares about me and my future, sends off someone he believes in. To this day I have kept a little Post-It note (one of many that he left me) that says, “Missing you already.” I still tear up when I look at it. That, my friends, is how it’s done.
When I had my first baby my mother-in-law asked me if I was bored. What she meant, of course, was that I had always been so active that suddenly being stuck with a baby must have been boring (it was, but not in the way she imagined!) I was very happy to have a permanent excuse as to why I could not go out every night. I was very happy to not be working where I had landed in France, because at work I didn’t know how to stand up for myself and stop taking on other people’s often unrealistic, borderline abusive, expectations as my own.
Babies were an escape hatch at the time. Babies were how I could, without fear of judgment, step back from responsibilities. Sure…they were a special kind of commitment. But they also were a very convenient excuse to get out of things I didn’t want to do.
Nipping it in the bud
Of course, they didn’t stay tiny babies who needed their mama forever. So it started happening…ever so slowly, that I found myself handing over the reins of my calendar to other people again. I found myself agreeing to go places with my babies (which I still dread doing, because they are tornados in little boys’ clothing.)
And then, miracle of miracles, the great lockdown of 2020.
I was so relieved to not have to go anywhere or do anything. I was so relieved, you cannot imagine. Because I did not have to go anywhere, I was able to start studying that relief. I realized that there was responsibilities and activities that I was doing that filled me with so much resentment and anger…and yet I would do them simply because I had committed to doing them and was afraid to disappoint others.
I stepped back from my responsibilities. It was hard. But it was such a relief. I put a moratorium on adding any new commitments to my calendar. Social visits are limited anyway by COVID restrictions, but I am learning to negotiate times and places so as to lessen my apprehension about taking the scalawags anywhere.
As I’ve said before, I have a hard time with boundaries and knowing where I end and other people begin. Learning that if someone loves me, they will be willing to hear me say no, has been one of the greatest, most empowering lessons of my life. Learning to negotiate is scary, but well worth the discomfort.
The Ideal Life Exercise
What is working? Although it sounds so small, the answer could simply be, ‘I said no when asked to…” Or, “I just wasn’t feeling it, so I cancelled my plans.” Or, “I didn’t say yes right away, but gave myself some time to think about.”
What isn’t working? This can be the feeling of dread which I inevitably feel leading up to a social engagement. It can even be with a person I love to spend time with…the minute something is on my calendar I start dreading it. I am getting better at discerning if this is because I am just being an introverted looney, or if there is something more sinister at work.
The Great Lockdown of 2020 provided me with a clean slate in this arena. As life starts getting back to normal, this will be one of the most challenging areas for me to keep making progress in. I know me, and I know I will end up obliging when I could have either negotiated or refused.
But every time I manage to consider my own boundaries before committing is a step towards my Ideal Life.
In my Ideal Life, I only commit to what makes me feel alive.