“No, it’s fine.”
I could hear the words coming out of my mouth, a common refrain, contradictory in grammar as well as what I really meant by it. Yet there it was, over and over again, in what sounded uncannily like my voice. To the boyfriend who broke his promises. No, it’s fine. To the family member who wanted everything to just be OK, when it clearly wasn’t. No, it’s fine. To the friend who simply stopped showing up, until she needed something. No, it’s fine.
It was like the chorus of a song that kept repeating, on a radio station whose channel I didn’t know how to change. No, it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fiiiiiiiiiine.
It was actually kind of easy to utter this phrase. To put what I imagined other people needed before what I needed. To be someone I thought people wanted instead of what was true to me. It was so important that I was seen as “good”. Good girlfriend, good student, good daughter, good sister, good friend, good employee, good everything to everyone.
I’m not sure when it started, this burying of myself to accommodate others. When I was a kid, I was often the outspoken — OK, bossy — one. When I was in high school, I was so singularly focused on becoming an opera singer that I did what was right for me and to further that goal, even if it meant not being cool, or not having boyfriends. I knew and expressed what I wanted.
But somewhere along the way, there was a shift. Perhaps it was subtle at first, so that I didn’t even notice it. Maybe it became more prominent as people began responding. What I do know is that once I felt the acceptance that came along with pleasing people, it was difficult to stop. It became a snowball rolling down a mountain, gathering size and speed until it was bigger than I was, until it completely enveloped me, until it couldn't stop.
When you say, “No, it’s fine,” often enough, you almost start to believe it.
It became second nature. I wasn’t even aware of doing it until someone I didn’t know, someone I only met via phone, pointed it out to me. Her point was that I could never be truly happy unless I was putting myself first. And to put myself first, I needed to start speaking the truth.
We’re never really told that we’re supposed to put ourselves before others. Quite the opposite, actually. Selflessness is preached, and giving more is expected. Kindness above all, of course. Why did it take 35 years for someone to tell me that it’s crucial to put myself and my well-being first? That is doesn’t mean I’m selfish, or unkind. And why did the idea of doing it create such an intense panic in me?
What if I started expressing my truth, and people didn’t like it? What if they didn’t like me?
The doubt plagued me, and was paralyzing at first. I almost let myself off the hook: the boyfriend is long gone, along with the friend who wasn’t there for me and easily faded out of my life, so I didn’t need to confront them with my feelings. But my family wasn’t going anywhere. They would need to be the test cases for my honesty, even if it still scared me.
And then I got into my car one morning, after struggling through yet another night with my fears about speaking up, and the Sara Bareilles song “Brave” was queued up on my iPod. This time, it was a song worth repeating:
And since your history of silence
Won’t do you any good.
Did you think it would?
Let your words be anything but empty.
Why don’t you tell them the truth?
Say what you wanna say,
And let the words fall out, honestly.
I wanna see you be brave.
And I knew: it was time.
So I tried it. The first conversation was most difficult. There were tears, and bewilderment, and anger, and defensiveness. And a few times, I almost fell back on my previous refrain, that old familiar chorus: No, it’s fine. But really, it wasn’t fine, and being able to finally say it out loud felt like lifting a giant rock from my shoulders. Speaking my truth didn’t change the facts of the situation. It didn’t change the outcome of events. But it changed me. And ultimately, that’s all I can really change anyway. Ultimately, that will be enough.
Change takes time. Speaking up requires determination. Being honest takes courage. But, at the end of the day, our truth is all we have.
Use your voice. Speak your truth. And in Sara’s words, “I wanna see you be brave.”