You're okay but I'm okay only if you say so

As I send off yet another ridiculously long email explaining why I am choosing not to say yes to an event a friend invited me to, something is finally made clear. It's not that I can't simply say, "No thanks, sorry." I am semi-capable of doing that, on a good day, sort of. The therapist M. that I saw for 3 months last year once asked me to practice saying the word "No" in her office.
("Can you say that word out loud?"
"No, I can't."
Awkward laughter. A ticking clock.) I run into her fairly often at Whole Foods or Duane Reade. There's no acknowledgement on either side, protocol I guess for her. Still I feel totally jittery until we part ways. Which is how I feel walking by the vendor I used to buy coffee from. Or the lady who once I think once gave me a stare down in the laundry room. My dad's cousin Suzie once said I remind her of a friend who felt awkward running into a guy who had mugged him. "What should I say?" the friend asked.

Back to mothers sending back all your invitations (free Three Muskateers bar to the first reader to name that song). I am unsettled when I say I can't do something. If the person says, "Why not? But I thought you loved them (a certain band)" I feel I need to explain that I do, but there's some other totally valid and acceptable reason why I won't be joining them. It's not that I can't turn something down, it's that I'm not comfortable with being a person who turns things down without a good reason. I want permission from the other person that it makes sense, that my reasons are good. Reasons, mind you, not for adopting a 12-year-old or quitting my job or moving to Japan but for not going to see let's say The Dismemberment plan next January. Oh, by the way, Jim pointed out that you know you are old when your favorite bands from college are playing reunion tours with expensive ticketmaster prices which I thought that was a great--if cringe-inducing--point.

Anyway, the reasons for not going to almost anything at all have to be irrefutable, the argument has to be airtight. That need for constant validation. Not validation as in "You're great, you're amazing, you're intelligent" but "You're not a jerk." "You're not selfish." I used to even go so far as to not want to meet at places near me even if the other person, who lived further away, suggested it because I didn't want it to look like, "Wow, that was convenient for Rachel. She sure does what's good for her." With invites, I could simply say no, but I'd fear the person's response would be, "Screw you." In the case of a wedding, maybe it would be. But in the case of most of these situations that I struggle over, Sunset Yoga or drinks in Williamsburg, it would not. So I have to ask myself, would *I* think Screw you? Is that what I think when I ask someone to do something and he or she can't or won't or doesn't want to or "might have in-laws in town that weekend" nevermind the in-laws live in New Rochelle. [Just remembered a funny moment from about 8 years ago. My friend Evening, the one I'm right now on a bus headed to DC to visit, and I were coming out of the subway in front of Dizzy's in Park Slope. We ran into a vague, tangential, friend of a friend who invited us to a party she was having in a few weeks, without specifying the date. Evening's response "I think I have something going on that weekend". Nobody mentioned the fact that we hadn't established which weekend was in question. That was the end of the conversation.]

Last year I wanted to get out of going to a super late party that I had only half agreed to attend. The host didn't care one way or the other, it was one of the people I'd planned to go with. I realized I couldn't go to a midnight party and then be up for the day with Wally at 4. It just wasn't fair to him or me. It was not healthy. He was too demanding. (Sometimes, when caring for Wally during his more taxing periods, I found myself wincing as I quoted Sarah Palin to myself, "You can't blink".) Anyway, the friend kept coming back with why I should go and how it wouldn't work for her if I didn't go. My feeling was she wouldn't let me out of it. She wouldn't let me feel it was okay, that I was an okay person, a decent human being, if I said no. The upshot was the party she went to beforehand lasted too long for her to make it to the midnight party. So it wasn't a "growth opportunity" for me. It was a passive retreat.

Now, before you start throwing tomatoes at me for being so ridiculously afraid of not meeting other people's needs, you should know that my mom recently refrained from calling neighbors to ask them a question about a favor she was doing for them, because they "might be watching TV." We laughed but realized she was not kidding.

"Is there anything at all it would be okay to interrupt?" We asked her.

She thought about it for a while but couldn't come up with anything.


  1. I'll preempt what *should* be the first comment: Why again were you only in therapy for 3 months?

  2. Is it because your therapist is even better than the one that cured my sister in 1 year?

  3. It seems to me from what you write 1) you hate confrontation OR 2) you hate people thinking bad of you OR 3) your priorities in life have changed and you haven't taken a full stand on that, hemming and hawing with one feet in the past because you don't want to hurt people. I struggle with the first 2, but said f-it to the third after I had my son.

  4. On "what to say to the mugger?" Anonymous X did this, which I begrudging admit I admire: Riding the same train home from work/daycare each day with Anonymous toddler, she regularly ran into the same, single man, he of the mean looks and muttered rudeness. All reflecting his irritation at having to share enclosed space with the mess and fuss of Anonymous toddler after working so so hard all day. At least twice a week for a while. Commuting patterns changed, eventually. But, months later, out with friends at a fancy bar, Anonymous X looks across and recognizes him, drinking and carrying on with his friends. He does not recognize her without Anonymous toddler. When he excuses himself to use the restroom, Anonymous X leans across the shared space and tells his friends the whole story -- "Excuse me? Your friend, you know, he's really such an asshole. We used to ride the same train..." Not bad, not bad.

  5. It's very difficult when we act based upon what we think others think. Because how do we really ever know?

    A lot of anxiety results from that uncertainty, at least it has for me.

    What would happen if you said 'hi' to your ex-therapist? or to the street vendor? if that's the kind of person you'd like to be, someone who recognizes that there are others sharing the same space and say's 'hi' without waiting for them to initiate. If we each wait then nothing of consequence is likely to happen. It's possible that through our own awkward feelings we create the awkward situation we've anticipated.

    It's ok if you don't say 'hi' but my point is to think about how you'd like to interact and do it (unless it's totally rude, cruel, dangerous, etc, etc). Trying to take into account what you think others may or may not be thinking seems so impossible to actually do, unless the person actually tells you what they'd like. Trying to imagine the coffee vendor telling you NOT to say 'hi'. Poor person, probably feel like they have no identity outside of coffee-seller.

    I figure the best I can do is share who I am and act the way I want to... and try not to superimpose my attempts to read others' minds. I guess if I thought I really could read minds I might have a different view.

    The 3rd case Garbage Guru's Wife described can be a hard one. Sometimes it takes significant time to make the transition when life's circumstances change and accept (find peace) with the fact that one's priorities have changed. That's never been easy for me.

  6. Just wanted to solve your mother's problem - she should email or text them. That way they can answer at their convenience.

    Oh Rach, we are so different. I actually even try to influence the planning of work outing locations so that they are either a) closer to my house or b) have good free parking because I'm a bad parker and never carry cash. It doesn't even occur to me that this is wrong. Selfish, perhaps. But not wrong.

    My mother said something to me when I was younger that has stuck with me a long time. She said "your dad and I knew we could never please you girls, that you would hate or resent us at some point. So instead of trying to make you happy, which would have been pointless, we made ourselves happy."

    It worked. The pursuit of happiness is a right, right? But that's the pursuit of MY happiness. Your happiness is your problem! haha

  7. GGW: # 2 and # 3 -- both of those. Finally addressing these issues though -- it's fantastic, "empowering" to be okay with both those things (people thinking bad and priorities changing). In fact, I feel oddly gleeful now about priorities having changed. Rhonda - when you say "It worked" do you mean it made them happy and also you (and your sisters)? Yes, I think I am starting to realize that it IS a right -- the pursuit of happiness. That it's okay to "do what's good for me". I think the problem with growing up with the Federman mind (overthinking everything, she said she doesn't want to go b/c she doesn't want me to feel that I have to go because she thinks that I don't want her to feel she has to go") is that you know most people around you aren't acting on their first impulse, on what they necessarily want. No one is just saying, "Um pizza" and grabbing the last slice. So you never know if they want it or not. My grandmother had an expression about that, Alphonsing (Dad or Mom -is that correct spelling?) If there is one piece left of something, you know there wasn't enough. Too much here for a comment, I'll have to write about this on a blog post I think.

  8. Linda - you are completely right. A lot of anxiety results from that uncertainty (trying to guess what others are thinking). I've also recently been made aware of how downright ANNOYING it can be to try to guess and anticipate others' needs. Being wishy-washy and unclear. All this relates to my intense dislike of assertive "I know what I want" people, but there is certainly some middle ground that it sounds like you have been able to find. This is pretty brilliant: "I figure the best I can do is share who I am and act the way I want to... and try not to superimpose my attempts to read others' minds. I guess if I thought I really could read minds I might have a different view."

  9. Anon @ Sept 24, 2:22 PM -- what did the friends say?

  10. Well, when I said "it" worked, the "it" was they made themselves happy. Did they make me happy? I guess I don't see that as their job. But then, as I always say - happy parents make happy kids. So maybe. In any case, I am happy, for whatever that's worth :)

  11. Tristan -- Man nonplussed; woman clearly shocked/appalled. When commuter returned from the bathroom, furtive whispering across the bar.


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