Learning to Say ‘No’

I have once again come to a place where I realize that I’m trying to do too much.  I’m over committing myself in excess of my resources of time and energy.  I’m fucking exhausted many days, mostly work days.  I’m trying to do all the things at 100% capacity and that’s not possible.  Not even if I want to really bad.

In thinking about this, and in conversations with loved ones and friends over the past weeks and months, some things have become more visible in the mud of my too-busy life:

1) I hate to disappoint people.  I will do my utmost to fulfill any obligations I have committed to, even in situations that are toxic and the other people in the vicinity are not living up to theirs. I sometimes take this to extremes and work past my limits and deplete my reserves in order to make sure things happen to the best of my ability.  This means I’m great to have on teams.  It also means I run out of energy often and that’s not awesome if you’re my loved one and you depend on me being able to cope with normal life.  What happens if I disappoint someone?  I feel like shit and a gaping hole opens up inside me and I fall in and can’t see light for some period of time.  That gaping hole was created when I was a kid at home living with a parent with undiagnosed mental issues.  I guess today we’d say she was neuroatypical.  So no, the world doesn’t end and disappointment doesn’t always cause someone to leave me and my life to turn into shit, but I have a hard time pulling out of that dive because the path is so well worn.

2) I want to be someone who can be depended on.  This doesn’t have to be an extreme sport, but I tend to make it that way.  Besides, I’m a creature of habit.  I like to find a groove and stick with it.  That’s awesome when it works and rough when I’ve built up an expectation with myself and/or someone else and then I have to fail that expectation because something comes up.  And unexpected shit is always coming up. This one is definitely related to number 1.  Being dependable was cause for praise when I was growing up.  Being a disappointment was one of the worst things I could do – and easy because the standards were so exacting and strict.

3) I tend to be conflict avoiding in my personal relationships.  I used to criticize my sister for this, but I’m not much better.  I think this is another artifact of my childhood that has been reinforced through the years.  I am quicker to give-in and compromise to keep the peace than I am to push and hold my boundaries.  That said, I have much improved in this area over the years.  It still comes up and gets in my way too much, though.

4) I’m not getting enough time to myself. I remember during one round of couples therapy my wife and I did that we created a list of the things we’d love to do if there was nothing to stop us – no obligations, no schedules, no one waiting for us to get done, etc.  My list was almost entirely solitary activities – reading a book, writing, working in the garden, going for a bike ride, watching the clouds, etc.  I do have the capacity to get lonely, but it takes a while.  I think it might take an entire day of not seeing anyone to get me to the point where I really need human companionship, or at least to be somewhere other people are.  Because of my problem with over committing and feeling responsible for doing all the things, I do not make enough time for myself.  This lack of self-care causes increased anxiety, increases memory problems, reduces my creativity, increases depression and dis-ease in my mind and body.

5) Apparently I should go back to therapy with this list.

6) Doing all the things.  For large chunks of my life, I felt like I could do anything I set my mind to. That I was smart enough, clever enough and capable enough that if I just put the time and effort in, I could learn how to do anything.  I know, towering ego, eh?  Well, parts of this have stuck even though I realized as I grew through life that there are somethings that I am organically not as inclined to be successful at.  Like high jumping or watchmaking or being a lawyer.  The parts of this thinking that stuck are related to the idea that if I set my mind to something, stick with it, push myself to the limit if necessary – I can do the thing.  I can do the thing and be a great team member and people will like me and want me to be involved.  Which of course fuels the over commitment thing.  But, hey, all these things are related.

7) I am really bad at saying ‘no’.  This is related to some of the above.  I want to be the kind of person who helps, who is dependable and doesn’t disappoint.  I don’t like saying ‘no’ to reasonable requests, it makes me feel like shit.  And by reasonable, I mean reasonable from the context of the person who is asking.  And if the request is reasonable, but I’m feeling that twinge in my gut that says ‘no’, I feel like I need to have a good justification for saying it.  And I am not always down with the idea that ‘because I need down time by myself’ or ‘that scheduling requires some heroics and I don’t have the energy today’ or …. are valid reasons.  I almost said ‘excuses’.  Reasons, I can have reasons and they can be reasonable reasons and not excuses.  But I don’t always get there.  I say ‘yes’ because going back to number 6, I really think I can do all the things, until I can’t.  Which sometimes looks like me dragging my zombie self through the day or getting sick.  I need to learn how to say ‘no’ without feeling guilty and feeling shitty about it.

I’m not currently seeing my therapist, and this is not a substitute for therapy and it still feels good to confess these things.  Onward.  Work sucks and my heroics are not enough to win the game much anymore.  Multiple concurrent relationships are complicated already and made more so by all the things we each bring to them.  I’m trying my best and not always succeeding the way I want to.  I’m working hard not to see that as failure.  And I’m committed to learning to say ‘no’ enough to keep myself out of this place of overwhelm and underhealth.  I basically feel like I’m juggling 10 balls or maybe plates, maybe both… doing that while keeping myself from falling into a chasm by holding on to the edges with my finger and toenails.  Granted, not every day or every moment feels that way, but enough do that I know I’ve reached the rupture point.

*inspiration for this post comes from Red, who encouraged me to start saying ‘no’ and helped me by leading me through an exercise yesterday evening during our date.  Thank you, love.  I’m working on it.

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