I’ve always been what people might call a “good girl.” People pleasing is in my DNA. I work hard to make everyone that I encounter feel good. I rarely make waves even when it is apparent that someone is taking advantage of my good nature. I smile and ignore slights and continue to behave the way that I always have. I like the way I am. It feels nice to do for others rather than for myself.
The trouble is that now again I realize all too well that I am being used and abused in certain situations. Not everyone operates from good intentions. Of that I am all too aware and yet I often fall into such devious webs without saying a thing. I quietly fulfill the obligations that I so meekly accepted and then move on, wiser but still unwilling to say that one word that comes so reluctantly to my lips, “No!”
My mother was much like me. I suppose that I am the way I am because of her influence. She was an obedient and giving soul who would not hesitate to give someone in need her last dime. She exhausted her energy and bank account taking care of others. Then she experienced her first mental breakdown. Her symptoms were quite frightening to most people and only those who were exceptional human beings and the inner circle of people who loved her unconditionally were willing to remain steadfastly by her side.
Our home had always been a mecca for individuals who wanted to feel the warm touch of comfort that my mom was so good at providing. Our door was as open as her heart. She always made time for anyone who sought her counsel or a quick loan that would never be repaid. After Mama’s mind was attacked by bipolar disorder most of the hangers on and acquaintances were never to be seen again, even when she generously invited them for a visit. She rarely mentioned the abandonment that was so obvious nor the way people often avoided her, but she knew that it was happening. She felt lonely and hurt now and again and once even insisted that I was spending too much time emulating her old persona which had proved to be ridiculously naive. She suggested that I instead determine who would be my steadfast friends if I were to suddenly become a pariah to society. “Those are the people and causes that deserve your time. Just say no to everyone else” she advised.
Unfortunately I had already been programed to be the first to volunteer. I actually enjoy the feelings that come from sacrificing my own needs. There is a kind of selfish gain in doing for others. Of late, however, my energy is not as ramped up as it has always been. I am in my sixty eighth year of life and I have more and more limits on what I am able to give. I tire more easily and my income is fixed. I understand that I must be more selective in my generosity lest I reach a point when I am no longer able to share my bounty. I think of things that my mother told me in her days of madness and realize that there was often great wisdom in her words. I can’t be all things to all people and so I must choose my causes well.
Learning how to say “no” is a difficult task at my age. I mentioned in a Facebook post that I was going to try to do so and I found out that I am not alone in my quest to bring more balance into my life. I received a barrage of “likes” and confessions of the guilt that often comes with the simple act of refusal. One of the acquaintances that I most admire reminded me that “no” is a complete statement and requires no further explanation. She is one of the most giving people that I know and yet she fully understands that we are under no obligation to respond to every plea that we receive. In fact, if we attempt to do so our efforts will be far less effective or meaningful than if we carefully consider which causes are most important.
My sudden insight into developing a healthier attitude came about the time that my cousin was dying. I was so busy with a number of responsibilities that I had accepted that I never quite found the right moment to visit him. I assumed that there would be plenty of time to do so once my self imposed duties calmed down. Of course the scenario did not play out the way that I hoped it would. He died before I was able to wish him godspeed. It was a heartbreaking and illuminating moment for me.
I had been chasing my tail working for a woman who demanded more and more of my time without showing even a tiny bit of gratitude. When I missed a deadline during the week of my cousin’s funeral she became exasperated with me and insinuated that I had been out having a good time while she was holding down the fort. When I tried to explain the situation to her, she was unmoved. After many sleepless nights during which my anxiety level peaked at the thought of returning to work for her after the holidays, I found the answer. It was as if my mother was speaking from the grave. I knew that I had to stand up for myself and leave the situation that was rewarding in the work that I did but painful in the way I was being treated. I took a deep breath and resigned.
Of course I still feel the pangs of guilt and wonder if I should have set aside my concerns. I am a novice in the game of asserting myself. I keep wondering if I acted in haste and yet I have slept soundly since finding the courage to eliminate a worry that I never needed. I feel as though a gigantic weight has been lifted from my chest. I am quite excited about returning to a tutoring gig at South Houston Intermediate where the students and teachers treat me with dignity and appreciation. I am looking forward to having more time for my grandchildren and godson. I plan to make the calls and visits to shut ins that I have heretofore only spoken of doing. I will now be able to give more quality time to my father-in-law who has expressed more of a desire to see me as he becomes older and less able to get about.
We humans often lose our way by trying to do too much. There are limits for all of us and those become ever more apparent as we age or lose our health. We have a tendency to put ourselves in last place, forgetting that if we wear ourselves down we become less and less useful and happy. Our bodies and our minds constantly send us cues as to what we need. It is in our best interest to listen to the voices in our heads that make us anxious. They are the sentinels designed to warn us when we have taken on more than we can bear. Taking charge of our lives is not a matter of recrimination. It is a must. It’s time that we taught ourselves to stand tall and utter the most powerful word of healing that we possess, “No!”