This column is an edited excerpt from the “Dear Sugars” podcast, an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains an extended conversation, more letters, and special guest Oprah Winfrey. If you’re reading on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).
I’m bad at saying no, but I’m on the road to recovery. I’m the oldest daughter in my family, and I’ve always been the responsible one. As the burdens grew, I realized I was handing over my life. A year ago, the nos came pouring out of me and I started living my life instead. I said no to funding my brother’s education, when he wasn’t even going to class. I said no to my sister, who wasn’t keeping track of how much money she borrowed from me to travel the world. Most wrenching of all, I said no to my mom. I couldn’t be a dumping ground for her pain and despair anymore.
Each one of them cut me off — all because I stood up for myself. I was angry and sad, then finally I started to heal. My sister and I have begun rebuilding our relationship, but I’m still estranged from the others. I know my mom’s not in a good place. I’m happier and healthier now that she’s not in my life, but I feel guilty about that. I’m also saddened that we’re not sharing our lives with each other. I fear I’ll regret not having tried hard enough with her. What should I do?
Ghost of No
Steve Almond: This is a crisis that plagues all of us to some degree: Do I conduct my relationships based on my fear of failing to please people, or do I muster the courage to act out of my true desire? In choosing the latter, Ghost, you’ve laid bare an unhealthy power dynamic that prevailed for years within your family in which you were expected to subsidize your loved ones, emotionally and financially. In retaliation for your rejecting this arrangement, they rejected you, at least temporarily. That’s not something you can control. Think of it this way: You had to say no to them so you could say yes to yourself.
Cheryl Strayed: I’ve had to make similar decisions with people I love, Ghost, so I relate to your situation. Even when you know you’ve done the right thing, it’s hard to not feel devastated. The negative consequence of your very healthy decision is that people you love shut you out. That hurts, but it’s incredibly common. When we say no, we’re setting a boundary, and people who have trouble with boundaries almost always have an adverse response when others assert their own. But please remember this: It’s far more painful to continue in relationships that have become toxic to us than it is to have them end because others refused to respect us. There’s a reason you feel happier and healthier, Ghost. It’s because you’re no longer cooperating with others in your own exploitation.