When I was in high school, I was part of a mega church in the tiny town of Applegate, Oregon. It actually wasn’t even in Applegate – that’s a lie – it was in an even tinier town 10 miles down the road called Ruch that was basically only the church. At one point, they had a ministry training program at the church that only men were allowed to attend because women weren’t allowed to lead in the church. All of the hottest 20-something guys in the church went into the ministry training, and it soon turned into a marriage factory. One year, I went to 18 weddings. I learned to completely loathe weddings and showers of every kind.
But, I still always said “yes” when I was invited to one. I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings; I wanted to be nice. I had all kinds of excuses.
Now, I pride myself on my honesty and integrity, and I have always felt like my integrity was a core part of who I am. But, you know what a people-pleaser actually is? A liar. I had to realize that if I am lying about what I want in order to keep other people from feeling negative feelings, I am outside of my integrity, manipulating them. When I was saying “yes” to things I did not want to do, I did it because I had developed a justification in my head that my lying about what I wanted was a noble sacrifice for other people. Somehow, I thought that lying was helping the people I was manipulating, instead of just protecting myself from discomfort.
On the other hand, when I went to law school, I wanted it. Like, I wanted it. I wanted all the late nights and anxiety and demeaning professors. I wanted the whole experience. When my friends would complain about how they hated law school and were making some kind of sacrifice by being there, I was not impressed. “Just leave,” I would always think. It seemed disrespectful to a challenge I embraced that they would talk about it like it was a sacrifice.
But, I have realized that my “noble sacrifice” of going to someone’s baby shower is exactly the same as my friends complaining about law school when they had the privilege to be there. I have come to realize that my friends having showers might actually want to have a shower. Shocking, I know. But, it might be true. I have sometimes heard people say, “That game at your shower was so fun!” I know you’re as shocked as I am, but part of growing up is letting people be different than us. Scientists should be researching this issue if they are not already. I can see the study title as I write, “Baby Shower: Cruel Torture Chamber or Thing Someone Might Actually Want to Have? A Qualitative Research Study.”
Greg McKeown, in the book Essentialism, says, “The reality is, saying yes to any opportunity by definition requires saying no to several others.”
Read that quote again because it’s so important.
Every time I lie by saying “yes” to something I don’t want, I am also lying in saying “no” to what I do want. Wow! Don’t pretend this is old news. Still, every time I read that sentence, my brain feels like it’s bending.
When you say yes to something, it is a big deal. I would even say, if I were in a poetical mood, it is a sacred gift. Your “yes” is important. Taking action to defend your career against sexual harassment and to advance in fulfilling work means practicing saying “yes” to yourself.
As women, we are often taught that it is our responsibility to manage relationships and that managing relationships requires us to read and manage other people’s feelings. When we say “no” to someone, we expect them to have negative feelings about it. Then, we think those negative feelings are our fault and we did something wrong to create those negative feelings in the other person.
I can lie and say “yes,” that I “want to go” to my friend’s baby shower because I think she’ll be happy I’m coming, and it’s “not that big of a deal.” Then, I can take credit for her happiness and think I’ve done something noble to create it. Yuck!
Living my life like that means that I’m surrounding myself with people who will be happy at my unhappiness. And, it turns me into the victim of my friends’ happiness. Also, here’s the other thing: if I let go of some of the pressure I’m putting on myself for “having” to say “yes” to certain things, sometimes I discover that I actually want to say yes, even to a baby shower. Not very often on that one. If you’re having a baby, remind me to send a gift.
“How does this nonsense apply to ending harassment?” I hear you ask.
There is a great deal of focus in the law and in society on whether or not we should put pressure on women to say “no” when they are confronted with harassing behavior. This is an issue that can get overly complicated because it makes no sense to say a woman is at fault for doing nothing, and on the other hand say that the man is not responsible for outrageous behavior. (Even though that is basically how we handle harassment situations all the time, it still makes no sense.)
In reality, it basically comes down to what I have said before: You are never responsible for your harasser’s bad behavior, but you are responsible for your own feelings. When we are compromising our “yes's,” it feels crappy. This is not because it’s your job to stop men from harassing people. It’s because if you are already experiencing terrible behavior from some man, you don’t want to be on his side, also harassing yourself. If you are holding yourself back from what you truly want or indulging in confusion about moving forward and taking up space in your life, that is like being on your harasser’s side.
When we are taking responsibility for other people’s anger or disappointment, and contorting our lives to make sure no one around us ever feels bad, we end up feeling gross all the time. We become a second harasser to ourselves.
You don’t have a duty to anyone else to say “yes” or “no,” but you have a responsibility to take care of yourself and your feelings. Honoring your yes's and taking massive action to get what you want, even if someone else has a negative reaction to it, requires courage and strengthens your muscle of self-respect. It also respects the other person enough to let them choose the thoughts and feelings that are best for them. When I go to my friend’s baby shower out of sacrifice, thinking that she can’t deal with the negative feelings of not having me there, it’s pretty arrogant. People are going to have to handle their own negative feelings, no matter what you do.
Also, people are supposed to feel bad sometimes. You choosing to feel gross and stressed out because you are compromising your “yes's” does not help anyone else. The even crazier news is that it probably does not even change what the other person is feeling at all. Most of the time, our feelings are related to judgments we have about ourselves more than they are related to our thoughts about anyone else.
Passing on offers in order to put our time into what we truly want is often difficult both because we want to make other people happy and because we have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Both of these are usually based in mind-reading negative thoughts into other people’s heads and fortune telling worst-case-scenarios. Because our brains work so hard to invent negative consequences, we lose sight of what we want to create and get wrapped up in trying to protect against a disastrous future scenario. Master Coach Kara Loewentheil said it this way: “If someone asked you to go murder kittens with them, would you say yes to make them happy or because you were afraid of missing out?” That was a clear, easy, no for me. Sacrificing what you were meant to create by compromising your “yes's” is sacrificing a human life (yours). That is not nobler than murdering kittens.
When you are deliberate about saying yes, it puts you in an active, leadership role in your own life. It doesn’t mean you will say “no” more than you already do, but it may change how you say no. For example, McKeown, in Essentialism, also explains that we almost never actually have to say no. Instead, we can say things like, “It is great to hear from you. Thanks so much for thinking of me, but for several reasons I can’t commit to that.” You can always be polite in your “no-thank- you,” and still choose the “yes” that is right for you.
At every step in your life you are saying “yes” to one thing and “no” to many others. Saying “no” to yourself is not nobler than saying “no” to someone else.
My other favorite “yes” person is Marie Kondo. (Sorry, Shondra Rhimes. You seem nice too.) A few years ago, I tidied my home using her Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up book, and it completely refocused my brain to see what I was rejecting in my life, just by default of saying “yes” to things I didn’t like. For example, in my shirt drawer, I found a whole stack of shirts I loved underneath a pile of shirts I was keeping because it seemed wasteful to get rid of them.
As Kondo explains in her book, the process about being deliberate about what we say yes to in our possessions is analogous to what we say yes to in our personal and professional lives. If I say yes to junk in my home, it is likely I am saying yes to junk in my professional life (and vice versa). If I am saying no to things I love in my home by piling things I don’t like on top of them, I am likely doing the same in my professional life.
Being “self-sacrificing” is really different than being compassionate. Pema Chodron explains, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
Self-sacrifice, in itself, really has nothing to do with anyone but yourself. There is no rule that says you have to be uncomfortable in order for other people to have comfort. Rather, this type of thinking sets us up against other people, even people we love. It says, in order for you to be happy, I must be in pain.
I don’t want people to be in pain for me. Other people’s pain doesn’t benefit me.
I’m not going to tell you that discomfort is worthless. In fact, I think discomfort is incredibly valuable. But, there is a big difference between self-indulgent, manipulative discomfort and the discomfort of challenge and integrity. When we are indulging in our own discomfort and blaming it on other people, we become a victim. When we expect other people to be uncomfortable so that we can be happy, we become a vampire. Bad news either way.
When we choose to say “yes” to challenging discomfort and to standing in the integrity of who we are and what we want, we grow. Sometimes this is painful to the people around us who can’t keep up with our growth, or the people who want to bleed us dry because we always say yes to them, even when we don’t mean it. But, it is still more honest to those people.
Part of defending your career from sexual harassment is becoming curious about what you are saying “yes” to. I remember, early in my career, when my boss would touch me every time he saw me, giving me huge shoulder rubs, rubbing down my arms, and leaning his entire body against me. I was not saying yes to that, and every time it happened, I would be shocked at myself that I didn’t push him off or react in some way to protect myself. It wasn’t like me.
Saying “yes” to myself in that situation, protecting my body, did not start with me pushing a man, in a much higher power position than me, off of my body and telling him never to touch me again. It started with a much smaller “yes.” It started with saying yes to telling my friends and people I trusted about what was happening. It started with saying “yes” to a colleague who asked me if my boss ever made me uncomfortable. It started with small “yes's” that honored my experience and my story. Once I was able to honor those steps, I could move to what seemed like an impossible yes of listening to my body’s warning signals and respecting them when anyone touched me without my permission. It requires checking in with your core about small steps and choices.
In general, if we are going to make big changes like this and take big action, it is important to choose a very compelling reason to do it. My compelling reason was that I knew if I kept living in fear I would die. I knew that my clients needed my help and my example. I knew that I wanted to say yes to my clients and myself, but I was giving all my yes's to my harasser. I had to make a shift. There was no other choice.
If we don’t choose a compelling reason to honor what we want, we often stay stuck in confusion and believe it is too hard to figure out what we want. Then, it gives us an excuse to look outside of ourselves for the answer. That is another form of indulgence and naturally leads to people pleasing (manipulating other people). What if the words “I don’t know” did not exist? You would have to start building a relationship with the integrity of who you are at your core and what you want, even in small choices. You would have to start checking in with yourself, instead of the people around you, about your next steps. Having that relationship of integrity with yourself can be uncomfortable, but it is the discomfort of action.
This is a selection from Career Defense 101: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Without Quitting Your Job. For a free copy of the book, visit www.CareerDefense101.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon or Barnes & Noble (paperback $16.95, hardcover $24.95).