Have you ever agreed to do something and immediately regretted doing so?
Welcome to my life.
I do it almost daily because I don’t like telling people “no” – I worry that they won’t like me. I don’t want them to think I am not a team player. I want to be helpful.
Truth is, I think I am Wonder Woman.
Because really, let’s be honest. What woman isn’t Wonder Woman? I don’t have any statistics on this, but I would venture to guess that every woman in the developed world has a running to-do list in their head, on their phone, scribbled on scrap pieces of paper or the backs of receipts – somewhere, if you are a woman, you have a to-do list.
Some women are more capable of respecting their own boundaries, recognizing the “cost” of adding a favor to someone to their list, or simply know how to say, “no.”
I am not one of those women.
I will take on more than I can handle. I will promise to do something for you, write it on one of my three thousand to-do lists, stare at the item on my list for days – weeks, maybe even months – and then cry because the mere sight of the words causes too much pressure. Sometimes I will forget to put it on my to-do list, and the next time I see your face for even a millisecond, I will say, “Oh, shit! I was supposed to XYZ! Damnit, Melendez!” and then apologize profusely, rush to get it finished, and then be angry with myself for making you wait.
But will that stop me from considering the cost of a favor before agreeing to do it the next time around? Absolutely not.
I don’t really know what it is – well, that isn’t true. I know exactly what it is: I worry that if I say I can’t do something for you, that you will think less of me. It’s a complex, really. I want you to like me. If you don’t like me, I will come to terms with it, shrug my shoulders and move on with my life – seriously, I don’t fret over it once you don’t like me. But actively displeasing someone to the point of dislike is difficult for me to handle. It is uncomfortable. I then worry about running into you somewhere and having to have an awkward conversation.
But some how, I managed to say, “No.” I recognized my boundary (with extensive help, I should add) and I said, “No.”
It wasn’t easy.
N is in her second year of Girl Scouts. The troop leader is the mom of one of her friends, a lovely woman who gives her all to the existence of the troop. This year, she reached out and asked parents for additional support by way of volunteer opportunities. Because I recognize that it takes a village and understand how much effort goes into running the Girl Scout events, I signed up to run a meeting in April – during the lull of my busy season of work, birthdays, and holiday madness – and offered to help set up the troop website.
I was happy with my contribution. It made me feel like I was contributing what I could and WHEN I could. It felt safe within my boundaries, preventing me from taking on too much at a time when there is too little of me to go around.
And then, at the Halloween parade, the mom approached me:
“Hey, Tina. I have a question for you!” she said cheerfully.
“Hey! Great to see you! What’s up?” I responded.
“We appreciate your willingness to help us out this year with Girl Scouts, and the website piece will be a great way to keep us organized. But the website is more of a want, than a need. We were hoping that we could talk to you instead about being the Cookie Manager this year,” she said.
I chuckled. Maybe too ostentatiously. But Sean warned me. He went to the first Girl Scouts Parent meeting of the year, and as he recapped the information that I missed, he warned, “Do not, under any circumstances, agree to be the cookie manager.”
He knows me, and knows that when pressured, I’ll cave, and I’ll take it on, even if I don’t want to.
“Oh, I don’t know. I really don’t think that is something I can help you with, unfortunately,” I said timidly.
“It’s really not that much,” she countered. “It starts in mid-December, and we will offer you a ton of support. The Girl Scouts cookie platform streamlines everything for you, so it isn’t too much of an undertaking. Could we at least have a phone call about it so we can tell you everything it entails?”
I felt myself breaking. Saying yes would make the uncomfortableness stop. She would be happy, and stop badgering, and the conversation would be over. I wanted so desperately for the uncomfortableness to go away.
She knows your weakness, Melendez, and she’s about to exploit it.
“Ahh, I don’t know,” I tried to stay strong and committed to my “No.”
“Just a phone call?” she tried again.
“OK. Just a phone call, but I am not making any promises,” I caved.
Hours later, as Tyler and I rounded out the Halloween celebrations with N, I mentioned that to him that the troop leader was trying to rope me into being the Cookie Manager.
“Say no, Tina,” he said, interrupting my panic.
You see, by this point in the day, I had convinced myself that I should just do it. I should just take on the job, and make everyone happy, because if I don’t do it, then who will? I would be letting the entire troop down. I convinced myself that I wasn’t pulling my weight as a parent, that every parent of the girls in the troop would be disappointed in me. I had myself believing that if I didn’t do it, I was showing the world that I was a terrible mother, that I wasn’t devoted to the things that interest my child, and that I was a selfish shrew.
Besides if I don’t take on the role of the Cookie Manager, how am I going to get my Thin Mints?
“But, I feel bad,” I whined.
“Two months ago when the sign-up sheet came out, you said ‘I will NOT be the cookie manager,’ and you said it with conviction. You told me that Sean said to never agree to it. You know it is MONTHS of work. Just yesterday you were panicking because you feel that you don’t have enough time to write, work, be a parent, and have some downtime. Work is picking up and you are adding in more hours. You just donated a ton of time to the auction project. N’s birthday and the holidays are coming up. You know that if you say yes, you are going to regret it,” he said, rather decisively.
He was right. He reminded me of every reason I said I couldn’t take on more things. He listed every statement I made in the last two months about why I couldn’t be more involved at N’s school.
“So now what? Do I agree to have the phone call?” I asked, more to myself than anyone in particular.
“It probably doesn’t make sense,” he said softly.
And then I sighed a huge sigh. A sigh of relief, a sigh of fear, a sigh of all that uncomfortableness tugging at my heart.
“Can I just send her an email?” I asked.
“That’s probably best,” he said.
And so the next day, I spent nearly two hours trying to draft the email between dishes, finishing the auction project, and picking N up at school. I’d write, reread, erase, write some more, repeat. Endlessly.
And I ended up with:
“I’ve spent some time kicking around the idea of taking on the role of the cookie manager, and as much as I would love to help out, I just can’t add anything to my plate right now. Work is ramping up and I’m already working incredibly long days. As we move into the holidays, I gear up for midterms and standardized test season, and my schedule becomes nearly impossible to navigate. I feel that if I were to add anything else to my workload, I would break.”
And after fretting over it some more, I held my breath, clenched my eyes closed, and hit send.
That’s it. Now we wait for the world to end.
And then I spent the next four hours anxiously checking my phone, waiting for a response. Because this poor mom was sure to be angry. I just let her down. I just told someone no.
I am not proud of HOW I told her no. Rereading the email, I recognize that I felt I had to justify my “no,” as though I needed to have a really good reason as to why I couldn’t help out. But it was my first time turning someone down when they asked for help, so I can only improve from here.
Nearly 14 hours later, I received a response from the mom:
“Well we don’t want you to break!! We understand. Thanks for letting us know and we hope you survive test season!”
Boom. That was it.
No “how dare you,” “you are so selfish,” or “you really suck as a mom.”
Maybe she was disappointed, but she understood. And I finally breathed that sigh of relief.
We have to recognize our boundaries. We have to recognize the cost of doing something for someone. Even now, it still sounds and feels selfish, and I know that I will still be uncomfortable saying no again when someone needs help. But if I want to be happier in my life and have time for all of the things I find important, than I have to be able to respect my own boundaries. Because if I am not going to respect them, then how can I expect someone else to respect them?