Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Lessons for Girls: You Can Say No

Historiann has been hosting a great series of posts that contain lessons for women. I've decided to and add my own lesson: it's okay to say no. I know full well that I am hypocrite as I write this. I am the world's worst person at saying no to anyone -- which will lend this lesson a note of authenticity.

This lesson is seemingly simplistic. The idea of turning someone down for something -- a favor, a date, an engagement, a job, etc. -- when out of context has none of the threat or implications that it does in the actual situation. Also, in my personal experience, when I imagine turning someone down for something, it's never someone that I actually like. Performing favors for my friends, family, and teachers -- people who I admire -- is never something I see as burdensome. This is actually where the problem can arise. You can overstretch yourself.

It's great to do favors for your friends -- to be there for them, support them, and try to make them happy. Performing favors and tasks for your friends can also be a reward in itself. It can make you feel more accomplished and strengthen the bond between you and the other person. But that reward will be missing from the equation if favors are done out of necessity -- a kind of "I have to do it" mentality.

That's not to say that you still don't have your friend's best interest at heart. There's this kind of mentality that if you turn them down for this favor it will in some way damage the strength of the relationship. And this kind of fear can persist through any relationship. The same fear of not being a good friend/lover/student/whatever can come through in any situation: whether you want to turn your friend down for help with a science paper because you have to read 300 pages that night, or whether you hold your tongue while you make your lover's dinner, even though you have a terrible headache and really just want to go sleep.

Girls are often raised to be caretakers. It's that mother/wife/daughter/homemaker role at work again. It reminds me of the beginning of a poem by Maya de Angelou titled "Woman Work":

I’ve got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I’ve got shirts to press
The tots to dress
The cane to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.

Men are raised with responsibility as well, but in my house it's always been the woman who has to "make it work" -- as far as the household running smoothly goes, that is. The man is held responsible for how sucessful his son is, and for religious/moral upbringing, but a woman is judged by how smooth her household runs.

There was unbelieveable pressure on my mother to get the kids to school, take us to sports practice, music lessons, clubs, events, parties, cook dinner, keep the house clean, and still accept invitations from her friends. She often couldn't keep up with the demand, or didn't. My father often berated her for being lazy, and my sister and I would pick up the slack where we could. The more the demand grew, and the more pressure she felt, the more she froze up. My grandmothers juggled the same hectic schedules -- some of them more crowded and chaotic. And I've absorbed some of those lessons.

Now I'm nineteen and in college, and I've always been fairly certain that the only way I can get everything done is if I stop sleeping. What further complicates matters is that I feel guilty if, after I've become worn from going non stop for days, I want some time to myself and have to turn my friends down for dinner or for help on something. Sometimes I simply insist on doing more for them just to alleviate the guilt.

If, finally, I ask for some time to myself or turn down a favor, after I have put it off forever and feel like I will explode, a miraculous thing happens -- nothing. My friends normally comply with my request. They find it completely normal. They weren't even aware, most of the time, that I was feeling overworked, stressed, or like a lot was being demanded of me.

The hard part was not obtaining whatever it was that I needed, or opting out of whatever it was that they wanted -- it was simply getting to the point where I could tell them no. For some reason, that idea that turning people down is wrong is so deeply engrained in me that it feels hard to even get the words out. I feel traitorous.

We have to get to the point where we can tell people no -- no matter what it is that we're declining. It is unhealthy for both the person who wants to decline and the person who is asking for that favor to be in a state where the favor being fulfilled feels oblagatory. Every person on this planet has enough pressure on them without feeling like their are going to be consequences for their not wanting to do whatever task happens to be at hand.

We have been brought up to be caretakers, but that doesn't mean we are solely responsible for making sure that the world runs smoothly and that everyone gets exactly what they want.

So you can't go that art exhibit on Tuesday because you have to study, or you can't help with that paper because your sick. Maybe you can't do whatever it is because you just don't feel like it. You're not slacking off. You're not a terrible friend. They'll understand, the explanation isn't owed, and there will be other times.

And if they don't understand, maybe that's a reflection that the relationship wasn't so strong to begin with, not that you dealt the crushing blow by turning them down.

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