When I first started going to therapy, in one session I was wrestling with my guilt over not wanting to pick up a friend from the airport the following Sunday. I hated airport runs, especially in Seattle where the airport is a bajillion trafficky miles away from the city. I told my therapist, “I’m going to tell her that I can’t pick her up, because I’d have to pay for a Zipcar to do that, and if she offers to pay for the Zipcar I guess I’ll tell her that I wouldn’t have time to get there from class, ‘cause I mean, class ends at 5 and she lands at 6 and…”
“What if you just told her No, without explaining why?” my therapist interrupted.
My anxiety shot up. Not explain why? “What if she thinks I’m saying no because I don’t like her? Or because I never help people? I need a reason.”
“Your reason is that you hate airport runs, Christine. You hate them.” And, after a pause, she narrowed her gaze at me and said, “You know that not wanting to do something is a fine reason to not do it, right?”
Now, seven years later and a therapist myself, I hear a lot of women, and some men, use their therapy hour to rehearse the explanations they’ll give to supervisors and friends and family for why they make the decisions that they do.
And I borrow from the brilliance of my first therapist, “What if you didn’t explain? What if you just announced, then followed through?”
In our still-pervasive cultural misogyny, women learn that validation comes through others, not through self. We are acceptable when and if others (often men) deem us (and our reasoning) acceptable. Only when we examine relational patterns a little deeper do we realize that our male co-workers do not feel pressured to explain their reasoning to the team in such detail, or that our boyfriends and husbands don’t reciprocate the play-by-play decision-making process with us. Men are not usually tortured by not being able to help out a friend, and they don’t find themselves reiterating for days why they didn’t show up. Women, in contrast, seem to be more prone to seek some kind of confirmation that our reasoning makes sense. We feel relieved when we hear, “Sure, I totally get it.”
Often this reliance on others for a validation creates a pattern of using a 3rd party as an excuse. “I can’t pick you up, because I promised Jess I’d babysit that night.” We create less-intolerable plans to avoid doing a dreaded favor for someone. I’d rather play with a baby than drive to the airport, so I guess this is okay. Our mothers and mentors did not model for us, “No, I can’t help you there, I need that time/space for myself.” Sorry, I’ll be binge-watching Kimmy Schmidt. I’m learning to build tables. I want to teach my kid how to play cribbage that night. Sorry, I’m not available.
(While this is a pervasive gender dynamic, it’s not limited to a male/female dichotomy. Alcoholic and abusive families, for example, run on the expectation that all members will perform specific roles, and any deviation is catastrophic. Both men and women who grow up with alcoholic or abusive parents are prone to seek validation through endless, and futile, explaining and overextending. This is why one of Al-Anon’s adages is, “‘No’ is a complete sentence.”).
When we explain (and explain and explain) what we need or want, why we’re doing what we’re doing, or how we plan on getting something done that we are perfectly capable of doing without talking it out first, we reinforce others’ and our own beliefs that validation come from external sources, that we are not to be trusted, that we must always wait for approval before acting on what we think is best. We keep teaching ourselves and others, “I’m not really okay until you tell me I’m okay.”
So here’s what I tell myself and other women (and sometimes, men and people of other genders): You don’t have to explain yourself. Practice just saying, No, or Yes, and stopping there. If you feel the word “because” formulate in your mouth, see what happens when you don’t say it. Or limit it to, “because that’s what I’ve decided.” (My mother used to end my and my siblings’ interminable “Whyyy?” with, Because I’m the mother, that’s why! You can borrow from her, except it’s not because you’re the mother, it’s because you’re you and you decided something).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for never giving or receiving help. I’m a big fan of interdependence. I ask my friends for a lot of help, all the time. I ask to borrow their cars and for them to set aside time for me when I’m lonely. I ask my roommate to watch my pets while I leave for the weekend and my priest to help me find discernment during confusing life transitions. In my long friendships, there have been stretches where I am more dependent on them, and other stretches where they depend on me more. It’s rarely “even” on a day-to-day or even a month-to-month basis. With newer or shorter friendships, there is usually an imbalance that I trust will either even out over time, or fizzle, with both of us making peace having been either the receiver or the giver.
I did not pick my friend up from the airport that night. Our friendship survived. I did pick her up another time, because we had grown closer and my love for her compensated for my hatred of airport pickups. She knows I hate doing it, which, oddly, made it easier for me to do. We have an unspoken pact that we will freely ask for what we need, and we’ll give each other our honest yes or no. No explanation will ever be needed.
With the extra energy I have not explaining myself all the time (I still fall into it sometimes), I find I can help others and myself in ways that feel sustainable and generous. My friends and family have learned to trust me more.
If you’re in an environment that sees you as incompetent, questionable, or a person without the right to set your own limits, it can be hard to break the habit of seeking validation through explaining. But I encourage you to try. While the pushback might be strong at first, eventually people start to get it. And whether they do or not, you will grow a sense of yourself as trustworthy and competent. And that’s worth it.