July 18, 2017
This column is an edited excerpt from the “Dear Sugars” podcast, an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains an extended conversation, more letters, and special guest Oprah Winfrey. If you’re reading on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).
I’m bad at saying no, but I’m on the road to recovery. I’m the oldest daughter in my family, and I’ve always been the responsible one. As the burdens grew, I realized I was handing over my life. A year ago, the nos came pouring out of me and I started living my life instead. I said no to funding my brother’s education, when he wasn’t even going to class. I said no to my sister, who wasn’t keeping track of how much money she borrowed from me to travel the world. Most wrenching of all, I said no to my mom. I couldn’t be a dumping ground for her pain and despair anymore.
Each one of them cut me off — all because I stood up for myself. I was angry and sad, then finally I started to heal. My sister and I have begun rebuilding our relationship, but I’m still estranged from the others. I know my mom’s not in a good place. I’m happier and healthier now that she’s not in my life, but I feel guilty about that. I’m also saddened that we’re not sharing our lives with each other. I fear I’ll regret not having tried hard enough with her. What should I do?
Ghost of No
Steve Almond: This is a crisis that plagues all of us to some degree: Do I conduct my relationships based on my fear of failing to please people, or do I muster the courage to act out of my true desire? In choosing the latter, Ghost, you’ve laid bare an unhealthy power dynamic that prevailed for years within your family in which you were expected to subsidize your loved ones, emotionally and financially. In retaliation for your rejecting this arrangement, they rejected you, at least temporarily. That’s not something you can control. Think of it this way: You had to say no to them so you could say yes to yourself.
Cheryl Strayed: I’ve had to make similar decisions with people I love, Ghost, so I relate to your situation. Even when you know you’ve done the right thing, it’s hard to not feel devastated. The negative consequence of your very healthy decision is that people you love shut you out. That hurts, but it’s incredibly common. When we say no, we’re setting a boundary, and people who have trouble with boundaries almost always have an adverse response when others assert their own. But please remember this: It’s far more painful to continue in relationships that have become toxic to us than it is to have them end because others refused to respect us. There’s a reason you feel happier and healthier, Ghost. It’s because you’re no longer cooperating with others in your own exploitation.
SA: We have this need to believe that we can turn to family for unconditional love. But that’s a dangerous myth. Relatives impose all kinds of spoken and unspoken requirements. Many of these arise from a pattern of familial typecasting. Ghost, you wound up playing the strong one in your family. What that really meant, in practical terms, was that you came to believe you had to put the needs of the weak ones before your own. Ultimately, this was a degrading arrangement for everyone. It robbed your siblings of their financial independence, and kept your mother from confronting her own mental health issues. I think some of this is gendered too. In our culture, women are expected to nurture. This is part of what makes it so hard for women to put their own needs first. There’s a whole system of ingrained thought — all hail the unspoken power of the patriarchy — that makes them feel like traitors for doing so.
CS: No question about that. I know many men struggle to say no, but there’s another layer of complexity for women. We’re culturally conditioned to be the nurturing ones, and there’s also a smaller field we get to move in when it comes to what’s considered selfish. Women are accused of being selfish for acts and qualities we deem perfectly fine in men. I’d say that’s where at least some of your guilt comes from, Ghost. When I’m feeling guilty about saying no, it helps me enormously to ask myself, “What are my intentions?” Answering that is so clarifying and calming to me. In your case, Ghost, it’s obvious you were asserting a reasonable right — to stop being taken advantage of financially and emotionally — and did that in part so you could foster healthier relationships with your family. The way they responded to your decision tells its own story: They punished you for making a choice that was good for you. Emotionally healthy people might feel disappointed when we say no to them, but that disappointment doesn’t taint the relationship and it certainly doesn’t cause it to end. If a relationship is contingent upon you saying yes when you don’t want to, there’s something deeply wrong.
SA: That doesn’t mean you can’t repair your relationships with your mother and brother, Ghost. You can defend the boundaries of your selfhood while still reaching out to express your love and concern. But your days of being a dumping ground for your mother’s pain or a piggy bank for your siblings are over. Hallelujah for that.
CS: You already have a healthier bond with your sister, and you could get there with your mom and brother someday too. We don’t know. That’s the complicated part of life. Each of us is only one part of the equation in any given relationship. You can reach out to them, but they need to reach back.
SA: That’s the real catch here, Ghost. When people aren’t making healthy choices, your empowerment is threatening to them and they retreat. You can still throw out the rope of love, but you need to realize that they won’t necessarily be able to grab it. The beautiful thing is if they do, they’ll get to have a relationship with the real you, not the you who was acting out of a sense of obligation.