The Guilt Trap

“Saying no to something is actually much more powerful than saying yes.”

~Tom Hanks

Everyone recite after me: “No means no.” You know that phrase – you practiced it in elementary school. In fact, it followed you all the way up to college (if you attended – no judgement). Teachers, mentors, and counselors applied it to everything from drugs to sexual advances. We proudly stood tall and assured our authority figures we could utter the words in clear tones.

And we do – in THOSE situations.

But get us cornered in an office setting and thrust a giant stack of reports into our arms, and the word “no” disappears from our vocabulary. Confront us with a shift that needs to get covered, and two little letters no longer exist in the alphabet. Ask us to remember to take care of ourselves, to prioritize our health (mental, physical, spiritual) above ANYTHING else, and we wilt and collapse under the pressure.

Epic fail.

Figuring out how to say no violates the guilt centers of our brains. Someone’s approaching and asking (demanding?) assistance, and we’re incapable to backing down. After all, we know no one else is going to step forward. A lot of people with depression, anxiety, or other conditions HATE seeing someone else in distress. We know what it feels like. So we bow our heads and take the burden on ourselves. To the detriment of ourselves, but – hey, we’re used to it. And better us than someone else.

Suddenly, we’ve created a pattern. Everyone learns that we’ll say “yes” to everything. No need to check elsewhere, regardless of the work piled up on our desk. They know the guilt will nibble at our conscience and prompt us to accept ONE MORE task without hesitation. Who cares if we’re dissolving into ill health and crumbling into despair? Just so long as they don’t have to bother with handling something themselves. And we don’t disappoint them.

We just sacrifice ourselves.

Because saying “no” is HARD! You have to fight that disappointment that’s going to flicker over the other person’s face. And you know they’re going to unfurl a guilt trip if you so much as form that hard “n” sound with your mouth. You’ve established a routine of always doing everything they ask. And now you’re daring to refuse? What the hell’s gotten into you? You’re supposed to work yourself into the ground – burn the candle down into a pool of wax!

Figuring out how to stand up for yourself and say “no” takes an effort of will. The first time I refused to accept a shift that needed to be filled, I honestly felt like I was dying. I couldn’t stop sweating, my pulse raced faster than during my hardest HIIT workout, my vision blurred, and I thought I was going to pass out. (Sound familiar? Oh, wait – that’s an anxiety attack!) But I had no choice – my body was beyond its limits. I was in so much pain that BREATHING hurt, and my system was going to take me out one way or another. I knew the refusal was needed for my own safety – and the simple act of saying no made me feel like I was dying! (Dead if I did and dead if I didn’t – such an awesome place to be!)

And my manager made me feel like shit for it. She gave me the worst disappointed look and pointed out that I had always stepped up before. (Talk about pouring salt in a wound!) I had to stand my ground and defend my decision – defend a simple “No!” I had co-workers that lied through their teeth to get out of covering shifts, and they never had to justify their answers. I was coming apart at the seams, and I needed to explain that – because I’d set a pattern of “yes.”

Learning to say “no” might save your life!

I started looking at everything I was asked from that point forward. I took stock of my body and my mental state. And I started saying “no” more often – for ME. Amazingly enough, my health improved. My body recovered, and I spent less time sobbing into my pillow at night. My depression eased up on me, giving me a chance to breathe. I realized I was BURYING myself in all of those “yes” and “sure” responses!

It’s still difficult for me to say “no.” My brain is wired to help and say “yes” to whatever someone asks me. I have to gut-check myself to STOP and look at calendars and think through how things are going. Because sometimes that need to step in still trips me up. And I pay for it.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be there for someone (don’t misunderstand me there). But you have to keep yourself at the top of the list. If you go down, you can’t help ANYONE. If you bury yourself, eventually the dirt’s going to tumble over. No one’s a superhero – much as we want to all try to be. Finding the courage to square your shoulders and say “no” is the smallest act of heroism you can accomplish – for you. Your mind and body will thank you.

Last Tile

Fallen tower of blocks
Photo by Samantha Hurley from Burst

As I’m sure everyone is already aware, September is National Suicide Prevention Month. A month in which people organize walks, share and copy suicide prevention phone numbers, and loudly proclaim their willingness to listen to anyone who might need to talk. It’s one of the months I cringe at having to endure, and I avoid participating in those events at all costs, manufacturing excuses if anyone succeeds in cornering me.

And not for reasons people like to guess.

I don’t promote suicide as an answer to any situation. Speaking as a person who attempted suicide on five separate occasions, I can certify that it doesn’t accomplish anything. (Yes, this would be the first time I publicly acknowledge that fact – lucky you) The desperation and rock bottom level of depression you reach to determine suicide as your only option is something that defies description. It’s something that the people who organize these events have ZERO concept of. And as much as they insist they’ll sit with you through such quagmire, they won’t. Because depression isn’t pretty.

Depression LOOKS pretty on television and in the movies. It’s crying, eating disorders, and closed curtains. It’s skipped social obligations and broken marriages. No one has yet captured the reality, though. Nothing captures the true depths of crushing misery a person undergoes when their mind twists in on itself and pummels every part of themselves. It’s a suffocating tar pit that sucks you down, pulling you tighter with every tiny movement. You’re fighting a person who actually knows everything about you – YOURSELF.

And you LOSE.

Friends claim they’ll sit with you while you abuse your image. They say they’ll support you as you brutalize yourself. But they get tired. They can’t endure the days, weeks, and even months as you struggle against the image in the mirror. It gets OLD for them. They don’t want to put up with it. “Can’t you just be happy already?” It’s tiring, and it saps their energy. So they drift away. They find excuses (sound familiar?) to skip being in your presence. Your depression infects them, and they escape to preserve themselves.

Good news: the guilt from that knowledge buries you deeper.

Suddenly, saving everyone from the monster you are sounds like a good idea. Ending the burden you’ve become feels like an answer. You’ve proven that sickening voice correct: no one wants to be around you. No one wants anything to do with you, and they’ll be better off without you. It feeds into the dark loop playing in your mind. Instead of helping, their failure to understand the twisted logic of depression has created the very problem they said they’d solve.

The world doesn’t like depression. They roll their eyes at anything that isn’t bright and cheerful. You’ll even get called out for pessimism. “Why can’t you just be positive?” I faced cold reality at my previous job when I was informed my subtle cries for help “made people uncomfortable.” I was told I needed to stop.

No concern, no sympathy – I was clearly the problem, upsetting others.

Yet there’s all this shock when someone succeeds. People wonder how they “never noticed” or “never knew anything was wrong.” As if the world hasn’t created a place where asking for help, showing we need help isn’t strictly forbidden. Rose-colored glasses encourage you to see NOTHING. And you thrust them at us as if it will make that soul-sucking pit go away. Newsflash: a rose-colored pit full of spikes and slime is still a pit of spikes and slime.

It’s taken me 25 years to reach the point I’m at now. That’s 25 years of being thrown to psychologists that wanted to know why I hated my parents so much (clearly, attempting to end my life was about them and not me). A full 25 years of weighing whether or not to tell friends, boyfriends I had depression, and watching many turn their backs on me. I endured horrific medications that destroyed my body, and then suffered through cold withdrawal when I realized they weren’t worth it. I learned to drag myself back from the edge on my own, facing and fighting those demons every moment of every day. When I failed, I learned to keep my head above the muck, breathing until I could find a way to climb out of the pit again. I finally found someone I could talk to – someone who WOULD sit with me through pure hell, regardless of how long it took. Someone who gently deflected every incorrect phrase that came out of my mouth (not contradicting them, just turning them aside – something that monster hasn’t figured a way around yet).

25 years, in which I wanted to die 5 times.

Even I know those aren’t the best odds. I’ve hidden my struggles. I’ve put on the positive face people want to see while falling apart inside. Despite the cutting remarks people made, I’ve held my head up high. It’s what we do. So you can stand up and look shocked and say, “I had no idea” down the road.

The walks? The events? The fundraisers? I’m not trying to burst bubbles, but they’re not going to fix the problem. You fix the problem by opening your eyes. By not getting fatigued with us. By MEANING it when you say you’ll be there. By doing your homework and learning what depression means in the first place. By picking up on subtle cues and derailing our thought processes before we end up in the sludge. You help us more by earning our trust (and KEEPING it) than walking a thousand miles. By being friends and stepping in when we need you than telling us to go outside and get sunshine. (I could be in the fucking tropics, and it ain’t going to do shit, people – STOP making that suggestion!)

You help by opening your eyes and your ears. Not by opening your wallet.

Dancing on the Line

Black and white image of trees fading into fog
Photo by Vlad Bagacian from Pexels

Black and white. Us versus them. Right and wrong. This or that. Ever notice how many extremes things appear to come in? People like to turn ANYTHING into an issue with polar opposites, and they set up camps in the two extremes. Then they look at you and expect you to choose one option or the other. Failure to do so, or (universe-forbid) failure to choose the “correct” option results in abuse, sneering, and insistence that you fix your way of thinking.

Because, of course, there’s a giant chasm in the middle.

Oh, wait – no there isn’t. Between those two poles is an entire gradient of colors (or, if you can’t see color, a spectrum of greys). The view from the middle lets you see EVERYTHING. Which, frankly, isn’t a bad thing. In fact, if more people took the time to stand on THAT line, maybe we wouldn’t have to cope with so much sniping and nastiness. (Go figure)

Unpopular truth: There’s no one right way.

Crazy, right? Probably why I spend a lot of time with people casting ugly looks in my direction (don’t worry – I get over it). But it’s how I was raised. I look at things from every angle before I make a decision (and sometimes that decision is to park myself in the very middle). I don’t necessarily LIKE considering issues from the other side (because sometimes the other side is incredibly stupid), but it’s the only way to be fair. It’s a necessary dance in order to remain objective.

Wait, objective with idiots? Yeah, I know – it sucks. My fiance’ shakes his head a lot when I start a conversation with the words, “But think of it from their side.” Does it mean I agree with them? No, not a lot of the time. But it means I need to take five minutes to stop and consider things from the other side. I can’t rush into an argument screaming from my heart. I have to give my brain time to process every angle first. (Don’t you wish everyone did this?)

It won’t win you any friends.

Want an example? I’ve read Mein Kampf. (Not in the original German, but a faithful translation) Hitler was an extremely intelligent man, and the book is a brilliant read – I recommend it to anyone. When I say those words, people act like I’ve executed a country in front of them. Do I agree with what he did? Of course I don’t! But can I admire the brain of the person who wrote that book? Yeah, I can. Can I point out the fact that someone so simple was able to corrupt an entire nation (an entire region) using simple rhetoric and propaganda? Yeah, I can. I can look at BOTH sides of something.

It takes practice and a backbone to dance on the line of objectivity. Standing still while someone rails in your face that you’re a horrible person is difficult. (Of course, unless you agree with them in the first place, you’ll probably have to do the same thing) You need a strong stomach to look at the other side of some issues, too. Again, you DON’T have to agree with them (I don’t support racism, religious intolerance, discrimination of ANY kind, and in our current pandemic situation, I support science and doctors – NOT politicians).

Once you learn to look at both camps, you find yourself sitting outside of them – even when you pick one. They WON’T let you stay inside the tent if you utter a single “but.” And a lot of times, you’ll end up in that fictional middle ground they told you didn’t exist. It gets lonely, but you’ll be stronger for it. While the others are busy screaming at each other, you get to note how similar they actually are (and refuse to acknowledge).

Plus, when you’re willing to learn more, you become a stronger ally. You know what to say to shut someone down when they try to abuse a person you’ve elected to defend. After all, you understand that side as well as they do, right? So you know where to aim your words. (Maybe it’s a LITTLE petty, but I personally take joy in watching bigots deflate and skulk away)

You DON’T have to pick a side, not if you don’t feel comfortable. There’s no chasm between them. You don’t have to remain ignorant of what the other “side” has to say. Knowledge doesn’t make you a traitor, it makes you smart. If your friends can’t accept that, are they the friends you want to keep?

There’s Sorry and There’s Stupid

“Trust is like a mirror, you can fix it if it’s broken, but you can still see the crack in that mother fucker’s reflection.”

~Lady Gaga

I spent a lot of time thinking through this post, considering it from different angles and reflecting back on my own personal experiences and lessons. The one truth I came to realize was that there will be a number of people that won’t agree with my perspective. Which is fine – I don’t claim to be the only answer out there. All I can say is what I’ve learned and realized over the years.

Trust is a tricky thing. Some people claim it’s something you earn, others that it’s something you hand out indiscriminately. Some people feel it’s strong, nearly unbreakable, while others consider it delicate and fragile. Some people think it can be repaired once broken, and others stare at the shattered fragments and see nothing but an incomplete jigsaw puzzle.

What do I see?

When I was younger, I believed that everyone deserved to be trusted. I handed it out to everyone with a smile, confident that I’d receive the same treatment. I was taught by those with authority around me that I was supposed to trust: my peers, my elders, my friends (not strangers – that was going too far). I was blissfully stupid, and I got exactly what I deserved: betrayal. And that first lesson was hard.

Know those trust falls?

My so-called friend thought it would be funny to let me fall. And I guess it was a riot because everyone else in the class laughed and made fun for days. Meanwhile, I was left with a sore back, sore head, a bitter taste in my mouth, and the first twist of the knife in my heart. Oh, the teacher scolded, but that was the end of things. One more betrayal. After all, kids will be kids, right?

No one can see the knife – be it in the heart or in the back – but it stays. Each betrayal buries it deeper until the trust that exists between those two individuals shatters completely. That’s the only thing that saves you from the damage being wrought by the knife. Whispered conversations behind the back (which you’re not supposed to hear but ALWAYS get around to you), “forgotten” promises, blatant lies – they all add up. People decide they’re “harmless,” and wave away the fact that they’re breaking your trust.

And then it snaps (or you do).

You stare at the destructive remains of the trusting bond you shared with a person, and you don’t know what to feel. Relief that they can’t hurt you anymore? Anger that you allowed them to hurt you for so long? Sadness that the bond is gone? Misery that you were manipulated? Despair that you’ll never be able to put those pieces back together? Everything at once? Fragile or strong, the trust is now gone.

Sometimes, that trust stays gone. Friendships die without trust (well, any relationship does). Is that a loss? No. True friends don’t behave that way, and you’re better off without them. Other times, those same people bounce back into your lives with big smiles and offer you the bond of trust again. Often, they act as if nothing ever happened, as if they never thrust a knife into your back and destroyed some part of your life.

And you know there’s another knife in their hands.

Do you extend that trust again? Or are you smart enough to walk away?

I spent a lot of my life being stupid, and I paid for it – over and over and over again. My back is covered in the metaphorical scars of betrayal. As time went on, I stopped trusting people, stopped extending it to those who showed smiles that were too big, used the words, “trust me.” Does that mean I made the right decisions all the time? No. I’ve removed knives from my back in the past year.

And it still sucks every time.

Now, I might accept apologies from liars, but I never trust another word from their mouths. I expect manipulators to continue doing so, and I watch everything they do. Promises made from people I know that don’t keep them are expected to be broken, and I make alternate plans. New people that come into my life are watched like a hawk, and I don’t trust them – not for a long time. I refuse to do trust falls.

Is this healthy?

I’m the first to admit it probably isn’t, but it’s what people have taught me. I spent too much of my life being stupid, and I’ve finished with that phase of things. There ARE people in my life I trust. They’ve stuck with me through everything and proved there are decent individuals in this world. Is the list long? No. Am I worried that it’s a short list? No. A tight, small, STRONG circle beats a big, weak, floppy circle any day.

So, yeah, maybe you won’t agree with my view on trust. That’s okay. If you haven’t experienced the same level of betrayal, I’m glad – and I mean that. I hope that continues in your life. No one deserves to carry a back full of scars.

Check the Fertilizer

Wasn’t exactly intentional, but I’ve stumbled onto a theme this month concerning dreams and goals, and this post circles around that same concept. When you sit down and start to figure out how to break down your dream into goals, it’s natural to look around at the people you love and admire – especially if they’re successful and living their personal dreams. It makes sense, too, since they’ve achieved a lot of their goals and climbed higher on their ladders than you. I’m not saying this is a bad idea by any stretch. The problem comes in when you start to compare and contrast them against yourself.

The grass is greener on the other side for a reason.

You are NOT that person. The two of you don’t have the same pedestals, don’t have the same ladders, and you aren’t even standing on the same level ground. Comparing yourself to them is going to start a round of self-defeating thoughts and behavior that will guarantee one thing: you aren’t going anywhere. You don’t know how many goals they’ve checked off the their list to get where they are today. How many sacrifices have they made? How much work have they invested? What kind of commitment are they putting in every single day? And how long have they been at things? You’re not even at DAY ONE – expecting brilliance is asking too much of anyone (not even superheroes save the world on their first day).

Yes, they make it look easy, and it’s depressing. When you reach that stage, you’ll get to depress everyone watching you from the ground floor – so there’s that to look forward to (don’t make that a goal, please). As soon as you sit down and FOCUS on what steps you’ll need, you’ll figure out it isn’t easy and gain some perspective. Whatever the dream is that you’re chasing down, there’s work involved that demands your attention, blood, sweat, and tears. Nothing that requires those things is easy. Anyone that tells you differently is selling something – usually at a steep price.

Are there people out there willing to sneer down at you from their ladder? Of course – people are shit. They live to make you feel bad because they aren’t secure on their own journey. Maybe they didn’t plan very well and are stuck without a new rung to go to. Maybe they realized what they were chasing wasn’t their dream (NEVER follow someone else’s dream!). Or maybe they’re just an asshole – those people do exist out there. Yeah, they’re standing above you, but if they aren’t doing any work, you need to stop and think before you try to compare yourself to them.

Sometimes the grass is green because it’s full of shit.

Is it hard to stop comparing yourself with the successful people around you? Of course it is. I spent years hearing my parents tell everyone who would listen about my sister being the only one in the family who used her college degree (newsflash – I’m not using any of my degrees). I watched my brother move up through the ranks of his military career (you get medals there, too). Then my other brother got a job where he was PAID to go to movies and got free tickets to ComicCon – I mean, come on! Meanwhile, I was sitting in a career that didn’t really offer advancement and wasn’t exactly thrilling me – yay.

I was embarrassed, I was depressed, and I avoided family functions whenever possible so I didn’t have to admit that I was a pathetic nothing in comparison to my fabulous – younger – siblings. It took me YEARS to realize that my siblings didn’t feel they were any better (or worse) than me, nor was there really any comparison. None of us are even in the same REALM as one another when it comes to our dreams and goals!

Comparison can get your nowhere – FAST!

What I DID finally get was a blueprint for my own success: I stopped being an idiot and realized what I wanted to do with my life. I thought over how my sister followed what she wanted to do – I could do that (and I have). I looked at how my brother has continued to pursue his dreams despite all of the changes in his life – hell, I could do that (and I am). I admired my other brother’s commitment and constant genuine self – yeah, I could do that (and I figured out how to). I picked out the RIGHT comparison to get myself moving forward, instead of continuing to stagnate.

Pick out the elements of those people you admire and decide how they benefit you. If they don’t, dismiss them and move on. If those people look down on you – get rid of them, because you don’t need that kind of negativity. Compare, don’t contrast; you can find the right model to help you adjust your goals and planning appropriately.

Remember: the only person you’re in a race with is you and where you were yesterday.

For Life

People clinking coffee mugs together
Photo by Valeriia Miller on Pexels.com

Hands up everyone who has ever spoken some variation of the following, “We’ll be friends forever.”

Okay, hands down (it’s not like I can see them anyway). Pretty much everyone, at some point in their lives, has used that phrase or something like it. And pretty much everyone has regretted using that phrase at least once in their lives. Everyone has had at least one best friend in their lives, and everyone has had at least one soulmate in their lives. And everyone has lost those same people at least once and conferred the titles to someone new.

Why?

Because we’re stupid, pure and simple. I’d sugar-coat it if I could, but I can’t. The truth is, we go through a lot of friend phases as we age, and we (hopefully) get smarter in the process and start to realize that the majority of the people out there who claim to be friends can’t even spell the word.

When we’re little (or trying to break records on Facebook or Instagram), everyone is our friend, we run around collecting them like Pokemon. You’ve seen these people – they display the counts and brag about them like it’s some kind of trophy. They can’t name all of the people if their life depended on it, and they don’t know the simplest facts about the people (middle name? last name? address? pet? eye color?). These aren’t friends. None of them are going to stand with us when the chips are down, and odds are none of them even made it to high school with us. The people that are still like this are sad and should be pitied, not envied (this is NOT a pattern you want to emulate, believe me).

A few school yard fights down the road, and we get a little smarter and choosier about who we offer friendship bracelets to. The circle is still bigger than it should be, but at least we might know everyone’s name. We still can’t reasonably fit everyone into a slumber party, though (unless you lived in a mansion, and then see the previous category), and we’re definitely missing details on a few of the people. Odds are, there are some cliques inside of this circle that aren’t keeping you in the loop (look at that – circles within circles!). Enter a girl’s most dreaded enemy: gossip. This is where you learned the lessons of backstabbing and betrayal. This is where you discovered that not everyone you liked actually liked you the same amount. This is where you learned who thought you were a nerd, a geek, a loser, a snob. This is where you learned about pecking orders. And this is where you started to really learn who your true friends were.

Enter high school and the pure hell that it is – enough said.

By the time we start stumbling on our adult feet, we’re battered, bruised, and we have a pretty jaded outlook on friendship. We know now that people will lie straight to our faces. We know that people will smile at us and talk about us the second we turn our backs. We know that people whisper as if we’re deaf (and half the time, it isn’t even a whisper – the deaf could hear them). We know that people laugh at us or joke and insist that it’s, “all in good fun” when it’s actually meant to cut us in pieces. We know that everything in Mean Girls was a reflection of reality (save the positive ending). We know that you can’t trust anyone.

Friends are now few and far between. We become skeptical of the word itself, much else anyone attached to it. That circle has shrunk small enough to fit in a standard household bathroom. We become ruthless at excising the liars and backstabbers from our lives – not always before damage has been inflicted. We build up walls, plant thorns, and we post guards.

And, yet, people still make it inside.

My circle is tiny. It is composed of people that I met in college and only get to keep in touch with via social media because we live in different states – yet they continue to be there for me. It is composed of people I met online and never in person who have done more for me than I could ever imagine. It is composed of people that have beliefs and politics I abhor, but we still support each other. It is composed of people that I get to see on a fairly regular basis.

It is composed of people who have never once lied to me, never stabbed me in the back, never given me a moment of doubt, never made me question their loyalty, and never blinked at the fact that I am an individual damaged by people who’ve done all of those things. They are the epitome of the word, “friend,” and I am beyond grateful every day that I have them. There is not a price in the world that I would be willing to pay to give them up.