It was probably in adolescence that I conflated conflict with harm. I was a quiet nerd, not tough, which made me a bully target. At home, my dad was demanding, exacting, critical. It was safer to go along to get along. Sometimes it was safest to run away.
What we learn to make it through childhood doesn’t serve us well as adults. I’ve shed my childhood survival tactics save this one: unless I feel perfectly safe, I avoid disagreements.
There’s more. I want to live a life that’s true. If you’re my friend or my family, I want the same for you. Trouble can come when you and I are interdependent, but the life that’s true for you doesn’t fit the life that’s true for me. Then I tend to defer to you, because I want to be empathetic to your needs and challenges. I think I can suffer discomfort for a while so you can do what you need to do.
Over the last few years I’ve gone along with too much that I didn’t agree with. I’ve said yes to too many things I didn’t want or could not sustain. A lot of the stress I’ve experienced has come from saying yes when I would rather have said no. This is not serving me well.
Each New Year’s Day I share a single word that guides the choices I want to make that year. This year my theme is:
— that is, to live in line with my values and needs. That means I have to be more honest with my yes and no. As much as possible, I need to say yes only to things I can truly support. When I’m not sure, I won’t answer until I am. If I then need to say no, then I will say no. The more I do this, the more I will live according to my beliefs, desires, values, missions, and goals.
This is going to be tricky. Sometimes interrelated and conflicting beliefs, desires, etc., play in a situation. It can be hard to know which ones to prioritize so I know what to do.
When I was Director of Engineering at that software startup a few years ago, they brought in a new VP over me and nine months later she fired me.
She demanded unquestioning loyalty, which set her whole leadership team on edge. She abruptly fired two of my peer directors who weren’t fully playing her game. A third would not work in such an environment and resigned. I was the only person left from the original leadership team. I could see that she was toxic and I didn’t want to work for her, but I couldn’t afford to quit without another job lined up.
Openly disagreeing with her was dangerous. I did disagree, frequently. At first I tried to gently discuss my positions with her. Sometimes it held her off for a little while. After she terminated my peers I became less willing to engage. I tried to find a new job while mollifying the boss, but I didn’t find one soon enough.
In the last month or so of our time together, she said to me a few times, “I don’t think you’re telling me what you really think. I can’t trust you if you don’t tell me what you think.” But it was obviously not safe to tell her what I thought.
If I had it to do over, I’d disagree boldly. It didn’t work to mollify her like I did my childhood bullies and avoid her like I did my father. I can only guess at how it might have gone had I pushed back. Maybe she would have fired me sooner. That would have been better because it would have shortened my misery! It’s not impossible that if I had spoken boldly, outcomes could have been shaped for the better. Either way, I would have kept my integrity.
About five years ago, at church we started a day care and preschool. I was (and am) an elder there, and I was also a trustee then. That’s a lot of responsibility and accountability. The rest of the elders and the trustees were very excited about starting this day care. I wasn’t. I thought we shouldn’t do it.
Our neighborhood desperately needed a day care and preschool. Reliable, low-cost child care would enable many single moms in our neighborhood to work. Even the income from a job at Wendy’s or Dollar General could lift a mother out of serious poverty into…still poverty, but more functional and less stressful. Moreover, statistics are clear that early childhood education cuts later incarceration rates in half in economically challenged neighborhoods like ours.
My church has plenty of heart, but seriously lacks in organization and execution. I’m very good at those things, but I’m only one man and I was already organizing and executing all I could manage. Our existing ministries and programs spread us tissue-paper thin: Sunday services, a food pantry, a youth program, and a ministry of renting a couple houses we own at below-market rates to people in transition. We managed Sunday services well, but everything else needed help.
Not only did I not see how we could add a day care and preschool, but also I could not see how we would run it at the level the government required. They would come to inspect us every few months. I said to everyone over and over that I didn’t think we had the ability to take this on successfully. The rest of the elders and trustees wanted to move ahead anyway.
I acquiesced. We invested in considerable building renovations to meet safety standards, hired staff, and opened.
From the start we struggled to manage it. We struggled to attract qualified staff. We struggled to maintain required staffing levels for the number of kids we had. We had the usual amount of parents upset over this or that, but we struggled to handle the complaints. We failed a number of state inspections. We couldn’t even manage to file the paperwork on time to renew the federal funding that kept the cost low for parents. We temporarily lost that funding more than once, which was incredibly disruptive for parents.
I was right: it was more than we could handle. I wish I could go back and stand on a table and beat my chest that we were not equipped to handle the day care, and insist that we reconsider. I did not at all enjoy the months we operated the day care. I wish I had resigned over it. It burned me out on the church, and I’m still not recovered.
I moved in with Margaret three years ago, after we married. We like to joke — though it’s no laughing matter — that we’ve lived through more difficulties than most couples face in 20 years. Several close family members have faced heavy grief and peril. So have Margaret and I. It’s been intense. We’ve stepped into the gap for our family members over and over. I prioritized my values of supporting our family, and of supporting my wife as she supported our family.
In service to these values I have said yes to several things I wasn’t enthusiastic about and to a few things I preferred not to do. They were reasonable responses to what we faced, but they took considerable time and energy. Because there’s only so much of both to go around, I have deferred pursuing some things at home that mattered to me. I also need a lot of down time, and I haven’t gotten nearly enough.
It’s all left me feeling angry. When I haven’t been angry, I’ve been depressed — which some say is just anger that lacks enthusiasm. Everybody in this house feels my anger.
I couldn’t foresee at first that we were in for several years of difficulty. I failed to prioritize my key needs enough. I can live in chaos for a time, but not for years as we’ve done. I need a quiet and predictable home life, and an orderly and beautiful home. I’ve deferred these for too long.
What I’ve learned is that every time I defer my needs, I don’t know for sure how long it will need to last. All of us can defer our needs temporarily for the greater good.
This isn’t going to be a simple matter of saying no more often. It’s going to also involve sometimes saying yes, temporarily. In other words, I can and will do this for a while. But long term I need whatever it is I need, and as you can see this thing I’m saying yes to isn’t that.
Saying yes when I’d rather say no to is a lifelong pattern. I did it in my first marriage, too. One of my first wife’s key insecurities was probably a deep-seated worry that her husband wouldn’t protect her in the clutch. She was insecure enough about it that she created all sorts of crises to see if I could rise to the occasion. I ran myself ragged trying to do what she wanted. I couldn’t manage it all, and it exhausted me. I finally did start to push back against it but by that time I had let years of irritation and anger build and I pushed back with fury. She never took even finessed, graceful pushback well. We ended up in ugly fights, and we coped in destructive ways. We couldn’t recover. As I’ve written before, ultimately she ejected me from the marriage.
I think that’s what I’m afraid of: ugly fights, being ejected, ending up high and dry. But obviously what I’m doing isn’t working. I was ejected from my first marriage, I was ejected from that job. Or as happened at church, I wasn’t ejected but I went along for a long and difficult ride that burned me out.
I can think of a few other situations in my life where my prolonged tongue-biting, where saying or intimating yes when I wanted to say no, ended up damaging or destroying the relationship anyway. Going along to get along keeps getting me exactly what I don’t want.
This may seem fundamental. But after a lifetime of trying to go along to get along, my awareness growing all the while that it wasn’t working for me, I’m finally ready to do something about it.