Women are socialized to be “nice” and polite. Sometimes, it’s taught as a matter of survival: a lady, for example, should always try her very best to politely respond to street harassers, for fear of being killed, injured or hit with a misogynistic slur. We’re taught that nice women are lovable. That you catch more flies with honey. That frown lines are unattractive. That bitter, angry women die miserable and alone. And besides, what are little girls supposed to be made of?
Over time, I began to realize how much time I spent worrying about whether or not I lived up to this ridiculous standard. I feared accidentally insulting strangers so much that social interactions became almost unbearable. They made me anxious, and afterward, I would spend hours rehashing my half of the exchange, searching for any points of rudeness.
When people I loved lashed out at me because they were feeling insecure or angry or down, I sighed, bit my tongue and vowed to call them on it later. Never mind my feelings. The nice thing to do was to be understanding of their struggles, even as they trampled over me. I would restrain myself for as long as I could stand it, only to lose my cool way after the fact, which only served to make me seem irrational.
If a friend asked a favor of me, no matter how wretched the task, I would agree to do it. It was the most self-serving form of selflessness I can imagine. I liked being the dependable friend. The responsible friend. The nice friend. The put-upon friend who just *had* to trek across town to feed a pair of demon cats (more on that later) because their owner was partying it up for Mardi Gras. It was to the point that other people’s opinions of me outweighed my own happiness. I was agreeing to do anything and everything that people asked of me.
If I “could” do it, I said yes…even if I was miserable the entire time.
2015 was the year that I decided I was going to say “no.”
It all started because of a talk with a life coach. I know that people love to scoff at the idea of life coaching and to be fair, if you don’t know anything about it, it sounds like something just anybody could do, with zero training. However, there actually is a very real certification process, and earlier this year, I was considering enrolling in a program. One of the first steps in the process is a one-on-one with a licensed coach.
It started out half-jokingly. I’m constantly conducting G-chat sessions, talking my friends through some work or life crisis, and I started to sarcastically suggest that I’d missed my calling. Because one of my friends believes in my abilities more than I do (another insecurity I’m currently trying to tackle), she passed along her friend’s contact info. He’d just completed a program and was more than willing to get me more info on becoming a coach.
He asked me to prep by thinking of a few persistent issues to discuss during our session. I’d been feeling overwhelmed by my workload, so I asked him to discuss balance with me. At the time, I was working my full-time job, interning part-time, recapping a TV show and trying to have an actual life on the side. I was exhausted, I barely had time to myself, and only one of those commitments actually helped pay the bills.
Minutes into our phone conversation, I remembered something awful. I’d forgotten that I promised to feed my friend’s cats while she was out of town. She’d only been gone about a day or so, and I knew she had an auto feeder and water bottle, but I still freaked out about spacing on a commitment. It was during winter, and the buses were running slowly thanks to a pretty recent snowfall, so I decided to walk to her apartment and chat with the life coach on the way.
During our session, he asked me to list each of these things in order of importance: myself, my family, my work, my partner, my friends. I mulled the question over, and after a few minutes, responded with “family, partner, friends, work,” completely and unintentionally forgetting myself. When he pointed it out, my jaw dropped, and even when I tried to rank myself, I couldn’t. It felt selfish to put myself before my family, friends or partner. I love my work and I need to do it to, you know, live.
Then, I got to her apartment. Now, I love one of her cats. But the other? He is my actual nemesis. It is not a one-sided beef. He actually glares at me.
He’d been left unsupervised just a few hours too long and decided to protest by pooping all over her couches. She wouldn’t be returning for quite some time, so I had no choice but to clean it up, and clean out the litter boxes that he’d trashed, as well. It was disgusting, I was dead-tired from having worked all day and I didn’t even have an hour to myself to finish my session. The moment was small and kind of silly, but it made me realize that I have to change. The life coach called me on it all, and gave me a bit of homework, asking me to write down everything I needed to do for myself in order to be happy. Nothing altruistic or selfless.
It was difficult to understand these things about myself. For one, I couldn’t believe that after all of the rethinking and unlearning I’d been trying to do, I still harbored this many rigid ideas about appropriate behavior. I also hated thinking of myself as someone who does favors for others for my own self-aggrandizement. I was trying to hard to be nice that I was becoming someone that I didn’t particularly like.
I do not have to agree to do everything people ask of me in order to be a decent human. I do not have to please everyone in order to justify the fact that I take up space. I can stand up for myself. I can choose to spend my time doing things that I enjoy. I do not have to endure backbreaking inconveniences in order to express my affection for other people. It will only make me resentful – a waste of my already-limited free time.