Sorry Not Sorry
It took a tragedy to feel like I had a valid reason to say no.
One of the most cringeworthy phrases I've heard yet is "no is a complete sentence." It implies that you can just say no to someone and that you don't owe them an explanation or an apology. First of all, if you know me at all, you know that I am physically incapable of uttering only one word at a time. All of my conversations include monologues that veer off in ten different directions with details and other information that may or may not even pertain to the point I am (slowly but surely) getting to. Also, if I'm going to have to decline an offer, an invitation or a request of any kind you better believe I have prepared an entire Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, complete with graphs and pie charts, of all the incredibly important reasons for my unfortunate decision. I will be sure to apologize profusely as well since I am absolutely horrified at the very thought of letting people down.
In my house, growing up, it was safer to be agreeable than to speak up. Keep your head down. Shut your mouth. Don't draw attention. It was chaotic and unpredictable and every day was an adventure. As you would imagine, the results were profound. Not to brag but I became an anxious, co-dependent people pleaser. I like to keep the peace. I want everyone to be happy. And I need everyone to like me. Need a ride? Sure. Watch your kids? You got it. Work overtime? You can count on me! Anything to avoid conflict. And if, God forbid, I absolutely had to say no, I was full of excuses. Most of them were fictional, or extremely exaggerated versions of the truth, that I would rehearse in my head to make sure to get it right. And then, once it was over and I was off the hook, the guilt would set in. I would feel terrible about myself. And I would worry. They're going to hate me now.
To me, the word "no" has always sounded a lot more like fuck off than no thank you. It didn't matter if I was the one telling or being told. I was either letting someone down or being rejected. And I had myself convinced that if I were to deny someone, for whatever reason, they would have a terrifying reaction. They might get angry. Or cry. They could even fire me. They could throw a tantrum and yell and break things and beat the shit out of me. They could never speak to me again. Worst of all, they might be disappointed in me and I would never survive. I know. Super dramatic. Have you met me?
I've always worked hard at spinning my wheels. My plate was full but I would just keep piling it on. I would volunteer to help friends. I would host playdates and organize field trips. I would overextend myself at work to try to prove myself. It was exhausting and I would wind up burning myself out. I would get sick or run down and then worry about all the things that wouldn't get done while I was out of commission. Then I would complain about how overwhelmed I was and feel sorry for myself. It was a vicious cycle. I was so concerned with what other people would think of me or how they would feel that I didn't know how to put myself first. I really wanted to be everything to everyone and get all the gold stars.
When my husband died, my life completely changed. The grief and depression affected my energy level and my ability to focus on certain tasks. The anxiety and panic came more often, which limited me to say the least. I just wasn't able to function they way I used to. I was in survival mode. I tried to keep up. I attempted to maintain a sense of normalcy for the sake of my son. But when it came to holiday parties, school functions and general adulting I was paralyzed. It was just too much. And it was so hard for me to admit that I couldn't do it all. I hated to appear to be weak. I so badly wanted to power through. I wanted to get an A+ in grief. But there were a lot of things that I just couldn't manage anymore. It was almost as if I didn't have a choice. I had to take care of myself.
So when I would receive texts from friends inviting us to a get together or asking me to volunteer or go out for drinks, I would start to text back, "I'm sorry, but..." And then I would pause. It just didn't feel right. There was a stubborn part of me that refused to apologize for honoring myself. I wasn't doing anything wrong. I knew they would understand. And when I could finally see it as self care, I no longer viewed it as something to feel bad about. Sorry not sorry. Backspace, delete. "Thanks for thinking of us. We won't be able to make it. Maybe next time." I wondered if over time they would stop inviting me but I just couldn't worry about that. I had to do what was best for us.
In some weird way, I almost wanted someone to challenge me. I wanted just one person to question why I wasn't able to do whatever it was they were asking of me. Then I could scream and cry and tell them all the reasons and excuses to make sure we were both clear on the fact that I was justified in my response. I still secretly wanted to explain myself. But not one single person said a word. Nobody argued. Nobody asked why. Instead they would reply, " I totally get it. Hope to see you soon. Next time for sure." And I mean seriously. Who's going to argue with a widow?
I will say that with practice the art of saying no has gotten easier. It isn't nearly as daunting as I had feared. And to this day, not once has anyone reacted with a Jersey table flip so there's that. I wish I would have been more comfortable saying no a long time ago, without using the dead husband card or COVID or any other major excuse. It took a tragedy to feel like I had a valid reason to say no. I am working on not fearing other people's reactions. I am also working on being okay with being good enough. I no longer strive for perfection. And here's the thing. Life is short. I don't want to keep signing up for things that make me feel like shit. I have a new perspective. I have lowered my standards to realistic. I'm doing the best I can with what I've got. No apologies.