This is one of a set of letters to my children. These letters will not be in series; instead, I will write them as I am moved to do so.
I was raised to show respect to adults and to submit to their wishes. I never liked conflict, and this combined with my childhood training resulted in me subjugating my needs and wants for those of others. I came to understand that when people ask me for something, they were telling me to do something. “Can you do this for me,” was really, “Do this for me.” If someone asked me to do something for them, I did it, even if I didn’t want to, or didn’t have the time. Helping people when I didn’t want to made me feel like a martyr instead of a hero.
I recognized this problem, and I tried to actively change my behavior in high school. When I started refusing requests, people were not very happy with me; they were used to getting their way.
When someone asked me to do something that I didn’t want to do, I would say that I was sorry that I couldn’t help them, and then followed that statement with a reason or reasons why. This often resulted in the individual picking holes in my excuse as they tried to convince me that I could still do the task at hand. That wasn’t difficult because many of my reasons were quickly fabricated to “Let the other person down gently.” At times my, “No,” would stand, at other times I would give in.
Requests could range from something as simple as someone wanting to hang out, to more complex tasks that could require days or even weeks to accomplish. My refusal skills were moving in the right direction, but I had a long way to go.
An event happened when I was a 1st-year medical student that changed how I approached this issue. I had been attending Northwestern for a few months and was invited to go to a meeting. At that meeting, many committees were looking for people to sit on them. A 4th-year med student saw me and approached me. She seemed very excited and happy to see me, but I had a strong impression that she was playing me. With great enthusiasm, she told me about a committee that she was on. I listened to her, and it became clear that she was looking for someone to take over her position so she could get out of it. The committee held no interest for me. Worse, it met almost weekly and involved a lot of work outside of its scheduled meetings. If I agreed to join, I would be committing my time for the next four years.
Finally, she popped the question and excitedly “invited” me to join the group. I knew that I didn’t want to do it, and my mind started to race to come up with some reason why I couldn’t. I could not come up with a reason, and on some level, I knew that any reason would quickly be countered by the 4th-year as her goal was to get rid of her responsibility.
I paused for a moment and then looked her straight in the eye. “No, I am not interested,” I said. “Why not, this is a great honor,” she replied. I continued to look at her and made an effort to smile, “No,” was what I repeated and walked away.
I have to say that I felt enormous guilt and anxiety after my refusal. My heart was racing, and I was concerned about what this 4th-year could or would do to me as her position of power (in my mind) was exponentially more significant than mine. She represented an adult, and I was once again a child. It was physically and emotionally painful to walk away, but that discomfort started to dissipate by the next morning. By the end of the week, it was gone entirely.
That simple, “No,” saved me from years of pointless work. It also taught me that I didn’t always have to give someone a reason why I didn’t want to comply with their wishes.
Kids, over the years, I have made an effort to continue to do many things for other people, but I now do those things as a choice rather than out of some false sense of obligation. There are times when I will do something mutually beneficial to both parties; I relish these win/win situations. There are other times when I don’t benefit, but what is asked from me is small, and it has little impact on my life. Still, there are other times when I may not want to do something that also requires a lot of work, and I do it anyway. When I help someone by choice, it is a beautiful feeling. I know that my intentions are sincere, and this knowledge gives my efforts meaning, and value. When I refuse a request, it is also done with thought. Yes, I may upset someone, but they can likely find someone else to do their bidding. I understand that I can’t solve the problems of the world.
Refusal skills are essential in all areas of life. Friends that want you to do something that goes against your values. Job expectations that are unreasonable. Relationship demands beyond your comfort zone. If you have a stable connection with someone refusing to do something will not hamper that connection. If your relationship is based on a house of cards, it is better to know that too.
I want you to be generous and giving adults, but I would never want you to abandon your values or sense of self because of outside demands. Always be true to yourself and your values.