“No” Guilt

But they whose guilt within their bosoms lie imagine every eye beholds their blame.

--William Shakespeare

'Am I a bad person for not going? She came to my party. Doesn't that mean I have to go to hers?" Jane was making herself miserable. She was begging me for deliverance but had not yet convinced herself that she deserved freedom. We were raised as Catholics, and our mother suffered from the "disease to please." Mom also possessed fantastic guilt-giving skills -- but whatever the reason, all the women in my family have a tough time saying no.

My need for approval and fear of disappointing those around me (or not living up to expectations I helped build) exploded in my face shortly after I turned 21 with a harmless question posed by a coworker.

"What kind of music do you like?" When I opened my mouth to form my response, I had no fucking clue.

"This and that," I replied. Excusing myself back to my cubicle, I sat and stared at the pink fabric behind my computer monitor. I don't know what I like , I thought. And it's not just music.

I grabbed the pen at my desk and wrote on a yellow legal pad: "What would I want to do this weekend if my friends were not a factor?" Looking at the tip of my pen tapping against the paper, I panicked. "You don't even know what you want," the pen finally suggested.

Two weeks is how long it took for me to find a new job, apartment, and to move to Los Angeles -- a city I'd been to only once before. With no friends less than a two-hour drive away, I had no one to "check in" with. No one to consult for ideas, invite me to parties, or insist I go clubbing. I listened to all kinds of music and learned that I couldn't stand the Smashing Pumpkins or the Grateful Dead (favorites of some of my friends in San Diego). I discovered that I enjoyed spending time alone.

I quickly made new friends, but because I hardly knew them, I wasn't worried what they thought when I expressed my occasional preference to stay in. I felt comfortable telling them I'd rather sit at home and listen to Nina Simone croon about her love for Porgy than party on Saturday night. I started to drive separately to clubs to limit the possibility of being stuck in a situation beyond my control. Life was becoming easier.

Living in L.A. also made it easier for me to pass on events in San Diego that I would have attended (even if I didn't want to) had I lived closer. Being out of town was like holding a reusable "get out of obligation free" card. I could say, "Thanks for thinking of me, but I have things to take care of this weekend" without the machine-gun line of questioning and launching of guilt missiles from the pushiest of my friends and family.

After two years in L.A. (what I consider an extended "find myself" period), I moved back to San Diego and carefully established boundaries, whereas before I would have silently resented how far beyond my invisible lines some would tread. Now, with every chance I get, I try to spread the word that people don't have to feel bad for knowing and, more importantly, doing what they want.

Sitting with Jane, I tried to shed some light on her situation.

"Saying no is the first step," I said. "As bad as you might feel for saying no, you'd feel a hundred times worse if you had felt as though you were forced to say yes. Resentment is an ugly thing; it doesn't serve anyone."

She was still fretting, so I tried another approach. "The only thing you owe anyone is honesty. If you are true to yourself, and your intentions are honest and good, you are not responsible for how someone receives your answer to his or her question."

I thought of something our father said recently while trying to talk me down from a self-induced guilt-trip: "You only feel guilty if you want to," Dad had said. "And I don't want to."

"Listen, Jane," I said. "If this chick had told you she couldn't come to your party, what would your reaction be? Not just what you'd say -- what would you think?"

"I wouldn't mind. But what if she asks me why I can't go?" I paused for a moment, for I worry about the same thing.

Guidelines for behavior in polite society, rules of etiquette, were originally designed to handle exactly these situations. Unfortunately, few people adhere to this simple code. With rules of proper etiquette in mind, I explained to my sister that she is not required to give excuses for declining the invitation. I added that it would be impolite for the hostess to grill her for reasons.

"But what if she does?" Jane asked. She had a point. What could she say if this woman strayed from the script and questioned Jane's decision?

"Tell her you'd love to see her soon, but that this party won't work for you," I suggested.

"Will that be good enough?"

"Why would your reason have to be 'good enough' for someone else? You can't worry about that; it will drive you, and only you, crazy." I handed her the phone. "Go on. You'll feel better after you do it, I promise."

I watched her dial. I heard her identify herself to the woman at the line's other end. I winced as Jane launched into excuses: "Isabella hasn't been feeling well, and Sunday is my only day to finish these 30 reports I have to write, and I'm expecting family to be in town, and I wish I could go, but with everything I have to do... I'd so much rather be there than here, taking care of these chores, but you understand."

When she finally hung up, I said, "Jane, the more reasons you give, true or not, the more you open yourself to counterarguments. She could have tried to overcome each of those objections, and you would have been on the phone for another hour. You don't have to convince her that you're dying to go, which you're not. All you have to say is that you are unable to make it. That's all. Surely there's an easier way to do what you just did." Free from the current unwanted obligation, Jane was happy to help me brainstorm more polite, concise ways to say no. We're still brainstorming.

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