If you follow this blog much you’ll know that I’m a great, great fan of the blogger, podcaster and author Gretchen Rubin. I was thinking today about how my own blogging and book writing was kicked off by the simple act of my reading a review of her first book on happiness, The Happiness Project (Revised Edition): Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, which came out in December 2009. Every Sunday when we lived in Northern Virginia I’d read the Washington Post’s “Book World,” a separate section that is, alas, no more. Sometime in December there was a review of this book. The subtitle sounded funny and charming. So I put it on hold at the library, and the rest is history.
Now that Gretchen and her sister Liz do a podcast every Wednesday, I often pick up a blog idea or two from the current episode. This week is no exception. As I’ve said many times before, their material can seem very simple, almost trivial, but once you start to think about what they’ve said you’ll see many applications to your own life. So it was today. A listener had written in with a problem: her in-laws expected her and her husband to store stuff for them, as the couple had bought a fairly large house that still had some empty rooms. So the IL’s would leave items with them when they visited (from out of town, presumably) or give them things they didn’t want, all because, hey! they have the room! The listener wanted to know what to do about this situation. It bothered her to have a bunch of junk she didn’t want sitting around. (Boy, do I agree with that sentiment.) Gretchen and Liz came up with a couple of ideas (such as just handing the stuff right back), but here was their widely-applicable insight: Once you’ve made your position clear people are quite able to adjust. You have to be consistent, but if people understand that this is the way it is, the fuss usually dies down. The MIL might say, “Oh, my daughter-in-law just doesn’t want to keep our stuff. That’s the way she is.” And they’ll deal with it some other way. “Never apologize, never explain,” you know. That maxim doesn’t hold true for your closest relationships, such as your marriage, but it’s surprisingly useful in other contexts.
So there’s no reason to a) launch into big explanations about why you will or will not do something and/or b) give in. Just smile say say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that” or “No, thank you” or “That won’t work for me.” I’m such a hard-core Obliger that I sometimes have a difficult time doing this type of thing because I don’t want people to be mad at me. Perish the thought! It’s been quite a learning experience for me to realize that the world won’t come to an end if that happens.
On a (much) grimmer note, I was reminded of how important it is to refuse to give in to an abuser or stalker. I wrote several years ago about the book The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence, which discussed how to manage threats in your life. One point has stuck with me: if a stalker (usually an ex-boyfriend or ex-husband) keeps calling and calling the woman he’s pursuing, and he gets a hangup or no answer on a dozen attempts, but then on the 13th one she finally breaks her silence to tell him to leave her alone, then he’s learned that he just needs to keep going until that 13th call and he’ll get what he wants: interaction with his victim.
The underlying issues are those of personal dignity and integrity. I hope to think and write more about these characteristics as we move into the new year, so watch for that. In the meantime, if you have as much trouble with this issue as I do, try doing a few runthroughs in the mirror. Planning out your responses ahead of time is a great help.
And then go ahead and follow through!
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