The wardrobe of our best disguises, saying yes to yourself more, and the upside to disappointing people

H i, I’m a perfectionist and a people-pleaser currently in rehabilitation. The rehabilitation consists of my therapist constantly telling me that doing everything that everyone wants of me and never saying no to other people won’t actually achieve what my brain tells me it will achieve, and me trying and failing to say no to others more and yes to myself more, again and again and again until I make progress.

Being an over-achiever and a perfectionist doesn’t just come from out of nowhere. We’re trained into it. Somewhere along the way, someone made me feel like if I didn’t do exactly what they said or get something irrefutably one hundred percent right, that I would be unworthy of love or care — and maybe someone did that to you, too. At some point, I let someone else, or many someone else’s convince me that if I wanted people to accept me, I would always have to contort myself into a pretzel to earn their affection — and that’s a great injustice, not only to me, but to anyone who has ever internalized this message.

How many times have you answered a text message or an e-mail or a phone call not because you wanted to but because you felt socially pressured to? Because if you didn’t, that person would hold a grudge against you? I’ve spent a lifetime doing it. In fact, I’ve spent a life time saying yes to friendships and relationships and sex and meals and living situations that weren’t right for me or made me feel uncomfortable because I thought

A year ago I went through a nearly year-long restraining order process against my abusive mother. While I knew that going through with a restraining order to remove my mother from my life legally after more than 23 years was a big move at the time, I don’t think I realized the full implications of it. A few months ago, I was talking about boundaries with my therapist when she explained to me that this was one of the first times in my life that I set a huge boundary and put myself first, despite how much it might disappoint or upset someone else.

S ee, I’ve been afraid of conflict my whole life. It started when I was living in an abusive home for the first 18 years of my life. But my hesitance to start conflict by confronting other people continued when I tried to stand up for myself in school or with friends and found that people didn’t like it.

In third grade, I tried to stand up to my teacher Mrs. Gibson and she told me I was “a bad girl.” She knew I really hoped that Santa Claus was real because I hoped that magic is real — so she told me that Santa didn’t bring presents to bad girls. I didn’t give in, I just let that teacher hate me for the rest of the year, and then I switched schools for the fifth time in my life.

This is my favorite photo of myself in existence. I was somewhere between four and five years old, and you can see that I’m profoundly uncomfortable with having my picture taken. I’m screaming. I’m putting my hands out and saying no. It’s not only proof to me that I am capable of saying no and setting boundaries, and that at one time, as a kid, I knew exactly how to tell people what wasn’t okay with me. I admire kids because they haven’t been socialized yet to think it’s wrong to set boundaries — I mean, kids never stop screaming and crying when something they don’t like happens.

By high school, I had been bullied so much in my life that I desperately wanted friends. I made a few friends my freshman year who weren’t really friends, they just liked knowing I would do whatever they asked of me to win their approval — but I didn’t understand this dynamic until later. In tenth grade, I had a “best friend” whose house I spent most of my time at when not at school. He lived a few blocks away, his parents were kind to me and I could always eat dinner there, we were in some classes together, and he seemed like a genuinely cool person. I had no reason to think he would ever abuse our friendship.

I’d finally grown boobs by sophomore year, and all the boys noticed. I got teased for it a lot, or what I’d now call being sexually harassed. This “best friend” was the first person to stand up for me and tell the boys to fuck off because they were being disgusting. I trusted him. I had no reason not to.

One day in November, we went back to his house after school as usual. We got snacks and went up to his room, but when the door closed, the mood changed. He put on some music as I sat on his bed. But as I leaned up against the wall the way I usually did, he leaned into me and got on top of me.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I want a girlfriend but I don’t know what I’m doing with girls, so I need to practice.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

“Well, you’re going to help me practice.”

“What do you mean?”

There’s not much to say about what happened after that without going into triggering, graphic details. I told him no what felt like a million times. I began to cry. And he did what he did anyway, because if I didn’t do it, I was being a bad friend to him. I cried the entire time. Later, he walked me home and asked me not to tell anyone because he didn’t want our other friends to think poorly of him — not because he had assaulted me, but because people didn’t like me, and he didn’t want anyone to think that he’d ever be interested in me. It hurt on so many levels.

W hile there are a lot of other times in my life when I tried to stand up for myself and was silenced and held in contempt by people I trusted, these are two of the memories that play on repeat in my head a lot, and affirmed to me that nothing good came from saying no to other people.

So I stopped doing it.

I can’t list many times in the last ten years or so that I’ve stood up for myself — they’ve been few and far between.

My therapist says it’s because the only times I’ve come out on the other side of being in conflict and saying no, setting my boundaries, and standing my ground have been bad. My brain has very little proof that I can say no without something bad happening.

But I’ve collected very much proof that love is taken away from me when I say no, or when I disappoint people. And so most of the time, my brain ignores every signal that someone is making me feel bad and I should set a boundary, because more than anything, I am afraid of being abandoned.

L ately I find myself sleeping a lot more than usual, and that’s saying something as someone who has insomnia. It’s not necessarily because I’m tired, but it’s also that. Despite the fact that I’m more exhausted than I would be if there weren’t a pandemic happening, I’ve realized that I’ve always used sleep as a boundary. Until a few months ago, I would go to sleep before 11 pm, if not around 9 pm most nights — yeah, even weekends. I’d go to friends’ parties and leave early to get home and go to bed. I would leave friends’ houses I’d cooked dinner at by 9 pm to get home. Saying I had to go to sleep was an easy excuse to use to essentially say . And recently, when I’m sleeping is the only time I can actually get time to myself and away from the rest of the world.

I went to bed at 9:30 last night after a full day of writing and reporting on people who are incarcerated and sick with COVID who are not being let out of prison by the New York government, as well as police brutality. I felt drained because I hadn’t spent a single second on myself all day. Then I talked to a few friends dealing with their own stress right now. And then I went to sleep — not because I was exhausted and burnt out necessarily, because I am, and not because it was just time to go to bed, but because I couldn’t think of a single way to bring peace to myself, to say no to other people, without feeling guilty, except to go to bed.

A handful of people have told me to take more time for myself and to say no more in my life, and I’ve always wanted to listen to them. But the number of people making me feel like I can’t say no have always outweighed these pleas to put myself first. And a lifetime of proof that I’m rewarded with love and acceptance when I put myself last is harder to fight through than anything I’ve experienced.

W hile it might sound strange, I think there is a lot more joy in disappointing people than we realize. Saying no or causing conflict by asserting our agency and autonomy might feel bad at first, especially if you’re out of practice like me. It triggers all kinds of fears of abandonment. But if we let it, it can be the doorway to saying yes to ourselves, and healing all the old wounds we’ve collected that tell us other people can only love us if we’re perfect — and not only perfect, but perfect in the ways they tell us that we need to be for them, not for us to be able to live with ourselves.

So I’m working on disappointing people more often, because I’m working on disappointing myself less. I’m working on making my wardrobe of my best disguises that make others more comfortable feel ashamed of me. I’m working on saying yes to myself — because my therapist is right. I want to be tiny Elly more, who says no. Where would we all be if we said yes to ourselves and stopped giving into the pressure of pleasing everyone else all the time? What good does it actually do us? Then we’re all just people walking around in costumes of caricatures of ourselves, with no true reflection in the mirror that we actually recognize to show for it.

W hat a terrible life it would be to spend all my years and all my hours doing everything for everyone else and never claiming a moment for myself. While it’s cliche, it’s true that I am the person who has to live with myself for my whole life. And I deserve better.

Pun enthusiast and writer and journalist living in Brooklyn. Words in Bitch, Teen Vogue, Allure, Refinery29, BUST, + more. they/he 🌈 🌹

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