I’ve been putting off this post for a while, and if you don’t know me personally, you should probably skip it. I’m not going to call any politicians mush heads or write about low key interactions with archetypal waitresses from my youth. Matter of fact, I’m gonna suggest you all go check out Stephen Fry’s great piece in which he disintegrates Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code without once referring to him as a “retarded fag whose shit is all fucked up”, a skill which I have yet to master. While you do that, I’ll be here having a pity party for myself and we’ll all get the better end of the deal. Those of you who do know me personally should probably skip this too because you might be pissed off by the end of it.
Setting boundaries. Never done it, never had the skill or the willpower. If I say no, it’s either a violent explosive thing after days of being at my limit. And even then, if the Explosive-No doesn’t cause the requestor to stop asking, I’ll probably buckle again later.
Here’s the basic steps when someone wants me to do something I have either no interest in doing or no ability to do.
- The Idea. The Requestor creates The Idea. The Idea sounds great, because The Idea is gonna solve everybody’s problems. The Idea is gonna save their ass. The Idea is going to be the big ticket outta shit town and on into some beautiful moment. The Idea is gonna save everyone money. The Idea is gonna make it all OK.
- The Approach. The Requestor comes to me with The Idea, and talks about it in vague terms. Once The Idea is posited, it is slowly but surely morphed from The Idea to Our Project. Despite my lack of interest in The Idea, I have now become entirely complicit in Our Project, which typically involves someone elses idea and my labor/money/skills. No at this point isn’t ever accepted as a No, it’s just me telling the Requestor that they need to rewrite their Approach as a challenge to my skills, a great investment, a simple fact of life that must be done, or as a favor they’re doing me. To curb this constant assault, I halfassedly agree with how great The Idea is, maybe even offer some feedback on elements of The Idea, which is interpreted as a commitment to Our Project.
- The Evolution. Our Project – whether or not it started as urgent – suddenly becomes urgent. There are now timelines involved, because if we don’t get Our Project underway, it’s gonna be late, and then we’re all gonna be screwed. We’re all gonna die, Our Project is the only lifeline. Typically this is a 10PM conversation on a night that there is no way to advance Our Project, this is purely a maneuver to remind me how important Our Project is. At this point, I commit to Our Project by offering Future Anything in exchange for being left alone now. My typical response is “Give me a call when you want to get started on that.” At this point I am Committed.
- The Backlash. Our Project is now behind. The Requestor went to the trouble of the 10PM call and I didn’t do anything about it. My commitment to Our Project is now in question and we are all on the verge of being screwed again, or better yet, we’ve been screwed for weeks and The Requestor has been keeping the wolves at bay, without any help from me thankyouverymuch. This devolves into a “What do you need me to hold your hand through this whole thing? It’s pretty fuckin’ simple, you agreed to do this and now we’re behind. What the fuck, get it together man.” shakedown. This can happen maybe six or seven times over the course of weeks, with Action Items that run the gamut from not personally interesting all the way ridiculously vague. “Learn to program”, “Learn how to Invest in the Stock Market so you can teach me”, “Fix that problem that I never told you about and cannot define”, “Commit to this expense that we will split”, “Find a Girl to Marry”, “Develop an interest in X so we can discuss it”, “Find me attractive”.
- The Decision. Confronted with this burden of an entirely thankless task that inspires no passion in me whatsoever for the eighteenth time, I finally make a Decision on it. This isn’t a one day task, it’s usually weeks of hemming and hawing, working myself up into a nervous frenzy about it, getting angry, playing out the conversation in my head where I finally confront The Requestor and tell them that I think Our Project is really Their Project and they should go ahead and run with it, because I have zero interest. I get angrier and angrier about it until I finally am keeping myself up at night. All day I avoid confronting it, and at night it gets up on top of me and howls.
- The Confrontation. Inevitably, I work myself into a frenzy about this and there can be no other way, I have to say No. But regular No isn’t going to make the impression I need, because as obvioused by my earlier No eventually crumbling, I need to make this the Explosive No. The No heard round the world. There will be another 10PM Call, and then I let them have it with both barrels. WHAM. Sideswiped. Since they haven’t been seeing my inaction as disinterest, and my earlier negativity is forgotten because of the excitement of me giving them input about The Idea, they don’t understand what happened at all, and I am in no condition to explain it. Unable to articulate the depth of my anger, there is no catharsis in this and I am still absolutely fuming when I slam down the phone/finish the screeching/slam the door/drive away. The Requestor sees this purely as me being rude, lazy, violent, and usually can’t figure out why I’d leave them in a lurch on Our Project, especially because now we’re screwed.
- The Apology. I will inevitably calm down and panic about what I’ve done to this poor innocent person who only wanted a little of my help and I will come back and make The Apology. And I will invariably recommit to Our Project, this time swearing to myself that even if it fucking takes every god damned moment of my time I will make this happen because by God, The Requestor is a Friend/Relative/Loved One and deserves it. Since this makes more sense to The Requestor than my Explosive No, they see this Apology as a confirmation, a total acknowledgement of my initial commitment to Our Project.
- The whole thing cycles back to The Evolution, and repeats.
I’ve often tried to analyze why I react the way I do when people ask me for help that I cannot give or time/energy I don’t want to commit, and come up with some scraps, but no complete thread. Part of it is that I crave the admiration of those I help, part of it is that I am lazy, part of it is that I’m just not able to say No assertively, instead I wait until I can’t anymore and say it aggressively. I have tried several times to learn how to deal with my personal life the way I have my professional life (where I am significantly more assertive and very rarely run into this type of cycle). I strive to please people regardless of the cost, I overlook patterns in loved ones, and I always run to blame myself instead of others regardless. I have been trying to break this cycle by instead stating my position clearly during The Approach and cut it off there, but given my history with this sort of thing, it’s pretty normal for The Requestor to simply assume I’m about to come around to it like I always have before. It’s hard as hell and sometimes I wonder if I’m just not fucking saying things right.
And the response to my Assertive No isn’t any better than the Explosive No, it still leaves The Requestor with a quivery lip and once I’m past the moment all I want to do is run back and apologize so we don’t have to have this fight, so I don’t have to stay up at night and think about it, so I don’t have toss and turn at night and imagine that quivery lip split open, the eye bruised, the eyes full of fear, my fists full of power, my face like a vicious dog – all froth and teeth and righteous fury. So I don’t have to feel shame for wanting an apology. So I don’t have to worry that unless I say Yes next time I’ll die alone. So at least my ulcer will be for Them, always for Them, instead of a selfish ulcer for me.