July 31, 2010

Just Say No

I've had a pretty easy time turning work-related opportunities down, but in truth, with overprotective, strict parents who believe in corporal punishment, I was trained from birth to say "yes," and to do what I was told.

As an adult, I wonder now why I obeyed my parents so blindly, why I didn't sneak out, drink, experiment with drugs, kiss boys, or do any of the other things that would have been perfectly normal for a teenager to do. When they would ground me for returning home from a bike ride five minutes late, what made me actually stay locked up? Why didn't I ever run away, as I'd planned to do as a child - when I went so far as to writing my runaway note, which was unfortunately discovered before I had the chance to leave, leaving me severely punished?

Was I merely taking the path of least resistance when my parents forced me to leave the door open while in the bathtub or on the toilet, an unreasonable request by any measure?

What made me so obedient?

I'm sure my inclination to do whatever I was told helped me rise to the top of my class in school. It's made me an excellent student in group fitness classes at the gym, and an apt pupil in Weight Watchers meetings. I'm eager to please, but it's not just about being liked - especially since my obedience never earned the affection or respect of my parents. It's about winning - science fairs, math bees, spelling bees, scholarships, elections, Most Likely to Succeed, game shows.

Even at work, though I've always been able to turn down opportunities by clients, vendors, advertisers, partners, etc., ultimately I've obeyed whoever is paying me. Even when their requests are outlandish, at the very least, I'll say, "Yes, I'll try." I've never been able to say, "No, I can't do that" or "No, I don't want to" or "No, that's a bad idea." Maybe that's why it was so shocking when my supervisor once told me in my annual review that I needed to go to obedience school (not to mention the ill-advised comparison of his female employee to a dog).

So imagine my shock and dismay when I realized - fifteen years into my active dating life - that my role, as a woman, in today's society, in a romantic pairing, is to say No.

I've spent years saying yes - yes you can buy me a drink, yes you can borrow money to buy your son school supplies, yes I won't tell your girlfriend about us, yes I'll come see your drunk ass in Queens, yes we can reschedule, yes you can stay over. But finally, in my mid-30s, I have discovered the brutal truth about the roles of the sexes: men are supposed to ask, and women are supposed to say no.

For years, I never understood why I had no luck dating. I'm so easy to be around. I'm so low maintenance. I'm so agreeable, and yet I can make suggestions and have my own opinion. But that was my problem. I was too easy.

I don't think it's just about playing hard to get, because I don't believe in misrepresenting yourself or generally playing games to get what you want. I don't think it's about saying "No" if you really want to say "Yes." I think it's more about saying "No" when "No" is really your answer, and standing behind that no matter what. Even if you lose the guy, at least you can respect yourself.

Case in point: I met a guy in a bar last weekend whose out-of-town friend wanted to leave and go to a strip club. The guy asked me and my friend if we wanted to join them. Instead of saying "yes" to prolong my time with the cute guy, afraid to let him leave and never see him again, I said, "You know what? No thanks. Not tonight." He asked a couple more times before leaving, but I held my ground with a "No thank you." A few minutes later, he leaned in and said, "You know what? I'm glad you don't want to come..."

A few nights later, same guy tries to weasel his way back to my apartment after a lovely date out, and I emphatically tell him no. Disconcerted by my confidence in my decision, he persists, trying to negotiate terms of his visit upstairs, but my decision is firm. During our goodnight kiss, he admits, "You know what? I think you're probably right..."

I am aghast. How could I have been so wrong all this time?

But more than that, if my new theory is indeed true, why do I have to be the one to say no all the time? I have just as little self-control as any guy out there, and yet somehow the onus is on me to be the responsible one. Why does the guy get away with acting purely on the desires of the id, and I've got to represent the ego and the super-ego?

And what's worse, once I start saying no, how do I know when to start saying yes again?

Unfortunately, avoiding regret isn't just about saying yes. It's about knowing when to say yes, and when to say no...

Related post: The Power of No

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  1. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Amy Alkon, a very down to earth, tell it like it is, advice columnist for our generation.

    She has written on the topic several times, most recently: