Stop right there! I mean it! Don’t take another step.

The other night my family was talking about the Giving Tree book by Shel Silverstein. We were lamenting that a children’s book that encourages poor boundary setting would be so popular. We were surprised that Shel Silverstein would make a book with the message that it’s ok to keep giving and giving or taking and taking until you’re empty. After a bit of discussion my daughter Maya said “Maybe we’re just wrong about what it’s about. Maybe you’re actually supposed to figure out that the boy’s an asshole in the end.” 

This is an interesting twist. But it got me thinking… if the boy is an asshole, what does that make the tree?

Most of my life I’ve been a “yes” kind of person. I say most of my life because I don’t remember being a tiny baby so I can’t say conclusively if I was or wasn’t at that time. But since I can remember, I’ve always enjoyed being able to say yes to most requests.

This yessing has a good side and a bad side. On it’s good side, I have lots of friends. People think of me as easy going (I think anyway). I am open to all sorts of adventures. If you think it sounds fun, I’m probably game to go with you. I like to help people feel better about themselves. I don’t have a lot of enemies. 

For the bad side, I’ll recount a little story. It’s about the pencil sharpener at my parent’s house. The pencil sharpener was in the garage screwed next to the door frame. This garage was full (I’m talking hoarder style full) of what-not: kiddie pools and big wheels (including the chic “Green Machine” with spin out levers), baby jumpy things, broken lawn mowers, lots of Joan Baez records, a giant freezer that contained ice cream and U-pick blueberries and dead animals that my dad found and wanted to keep, boxes full of stained glass and clay, Christmas decorations, headless dolls, paint cans, books, clothes, and one million tricycles. The garage was dark and damp and cold and it smelled like day old oysters. It was all the way at the back of the house, far away from help were a ghost of some sort to appear from behind the stack of animal skins saved for making a quilt (these skins ultimately got bugs in them and had to be thrown away. I was disappointed at the time because I thought this idea had some real potential).

The pencil sharpener was one of those heavy duty school sharpeners. Maybe it was stolen from whatever institution my parents were teaching at at the time and that’s why it was hidden away in the land of scary death. If you broke your pencil say, stabbing a hole in your spelling book from sheer frustration (it could be BOTH ANSWERS DEPENDING ON HOW YOU THINK ABOUT IT YOU STUPID JERKS! stab! stab! stab! stab!), and you had to sharpen up after dark, that was some scary shit. 

Often, my older sister would ask me to sharpen her pencil for her. As a dyed in the wool yes gal, I was between a rock and a hard place with these requests. My desire to make her happy was at odds with my sense of personal safety. Sharpening pencils is relatively loud and you have to face the wall in order to get a good rotation, subtracting two perfectly good ghost identifying senses. It also takes time to get a good point, leaving long stretches of complete vulnerability to whatever freaky yak might return to reclaim its skin and a little revenge to boot. 

But saying no was too hard. I was sure my sister would be so disappointed in me. Plus, I’d have to admit that I was scared, which was not ideal. And so I would gird my loins and take one for the team—run back, swing open the door into hell, slam on the light, sharpen for all my worth while imagining putrid and blood curdling mayhem behind me, jump back inside, slam the door on whatever horrible zombie was grasping for the fringe of my mullet, and bring that pencil safely home. It was over in minutes, but it took a toll. It was almost as bad as taking the compost out to dump in the garden, where serial killers and those aliens from Unsolved Mysteries lived. 

One day I decided to check and see if my sister would return the pencil favor, because a team is only as strong as its weakest link. I pressed my pencil hard into my spelling book once again, until the lead snapped, and sweetly asked her if she would mind sharpening it for me. 

She said no. 

I coaxed. I wheedled. I told her I ALLLLLLWAYS sharpen her pencil when she asks! I probably begged. But she still refused. 

I’d suspected that might be her answer all along, but still I was beside myself. I remember telling her to never, NEVER ask me to sharpen her pencil again, as long as we live.

But I also remember agreeing to do it the next time she asked because I couldn’t say no. The risk of her not getting what she needed from me, while I was perfectly capable of giving it, was too great. A few decades later my therapist told me that my ultra clear memory of this event likely meant it was a world building moment, a moment when I decided that others’ needs were more important than my own. 

I’m not saying that I never said no. But mostly my noes looked like me saying yes a thousand times and then releasing the fiery demons of hell upon whomever asked me for something the thousand and oneth time. Not an efficient way to live, to say the least. It’s taken me more than forty years to feel ok saying no to people. Here are the steps I took:

  1. Figuring out what I actually want in any given occasion. My decisions were all being made to avoid conflict with people and it turns out that if you constantly disregard your own needs, you can actually forget how to know what you want. I taught myself how to use a pendulum to figure out what I wanted. I hold out a pendulum in front of me and ask-should I sharpen my sister’s pencil? The pendulum spins clockwise for yes and counterclockwise for no. After I get an answer, I ask more questions. Are you saying yes because it’s the right thing to do right now? Are you saying no because deep down I really don’t want to face the reanimated yak? Is it ok if I do it anyway? Asking follow up questions has really allowed me to straighten out my convoluted and tangled up thought processes into something resembling healthy behavior. And I can always blame it on the pendulum if someone is disappointed.
  2. Having an addictive personality. This one seems a little counterintuitive, but when you can’t even say no to yourself, how will you be able to say no to someone else? Quitting drinking, quitting smoking, quitting gluten (sort of), quitting coffee, and quitting cheese has helped me to understand saying no and meaning it. Ironically, having an addictive personality can also create the opposite effect in people who are not conflict avoidant. People like this also don’t know how to tell themselves no, but since they know what they want and they aren’t afraid to ask for it, they can become more and more certain that they should have everything exactly their way, all the time, even when it’s not balanced. If you can’t say no to yourself, how will you ever say yes to someone else?
  3. Hypnosis! I tell everyone I know about hypnosis. I’ve seen three live hypnotists and done a million online sessions. I prefer the online sessions because I can listen to them and decide if I like the style or not and walk away if I don’t without any awkwardness. Here’s what I’ve learned: Almost all of our thoughts are subconscious. The subconscious mind runs the programs of our beliefs all day long. So if I learned once that I’m strong enough to do what everybody else wants, regardless of my own feelings, my subconscious takes that and makes it my program deep down. Talk therapy is great, but it takes a really long time to change that program underlying everything. Even if I tell myself “I am worth doing the things I want!!” the subconscious mind is still down there in the basement running a different code and saying something out loud isn’t enough to change it unless you say it a hundred times a day every day for a year. I read a book that describes our subconscious mind as a nightclub with a great big bouncer at the door. If you want to get into the nightclub and interact with the people inside, you have to get past the bouncer, which, in the analogy, is the mind’s security system that keeps everything running as it always has by deciding what thoughts get through into the subconscious. The bouncer bases his decisions on who is inside already, the kind of club it is, and what the management tells him to do. Hypnosis makes the bouncer veeeerrryyy sleeeeeeepy and distracts him so that you can slip by into the subconscious mind nightclub and move the furniture around and request some better songs from the DJ. (The book is called Instant Self Hypnosis by Forbes Robbin Blair).

What I’ve taken away from all this is simple. People don’t actually mind when I say no, most of the time. Sure they’re disappointed for a minute, but I think it actually makes them feel better, more like they can trust that I am doing something because I want to and not because I’m trying to make them like me. Their disappointment rarely lasts more than a few minutes, especially if I’m able to communicate why I’m saying no. I feel loads better these days. My nightclub is chill. We serve up justice and truth in there, most of the time. And I’m not going to end my life with some asshole sitting on my bare stump. It’s better for everyone, even the asshole, though he may not know it.

Me setting some legit boundaries with Poppy on my burnt cookie ice cream sandwich.