Key to a Life Beyond Crumbs (And Making a Difference)
I said NO recently. Twice. And it’s kind of a big deal.
The first NO was to a new man in my life. At first, I was stoked to have met “Darrell” online. Not only was he attractive and local, we had a high compatibility score. Unlike the men I’ve tended to date in the past, he had a lot going for him: two degrees, a well-paying job with leadership responsibilities in a respectable industry he loves, a nice home and three rental properties, a healthy family of origin, two semi-grown successful children, multiple friends, and fulfilling hobbies.
Our first date was one of the best of my life, but the physical chemistry wasn’t 100% there. Given how new it felt to date someone mature who treated me really well, I decided to give us a chance. But after five dates, and two hiccups — including being badly bitten by his son’s dog (!!) — I realized I just didn’t want to see him anymore. Any initial chemistry we had was waning. So I ended it.
The second NO was to a volunteer leadership position I took on earlier this year for a nonprofit organization. I’d been skeptical about the role — I’m not much of an organization person or a “joiner” — but I was flattered by the invitation and inspired by the vision and sincerity of the two women who would be my director and president. I hadn’t been asked to join anything in a long time. I was excited by the possibilities, and I liked the folks I’d be working with. So I said yes.
Things started off a bit wonky, but I know enough about organizations and change to know wonkiness can be normal during beginnings. But the wonk never evened out, and the WTF! moments increased in frequency and intensity. I realized I’ve seen this movie before, and I know how it ends. It would end with frustrated, deflated Susana not only being frustrated and deflated, but resisting or protesting in a way that would burn relationships. So I resigned.
In both cases, what kept me from saying NO sooner was an old narrative of “Broken Susana.” In fairness, this argument holds some water. As a trauma survivor who’s also trained in trauma-informed resilience, I know that when our nervous systems are accustomed to ugliness and pain, we can have allergies to yumminess and calm. Goodness and healthiness are unfamiliar to survivors of trauma and chronic stress, therefore they can feel “wrong.” That form of brokenness is real.
However, once I tried on for size the idea that maybe I’m not entirely Broken, it fit. The decision to stop seeing Darrell was not only crystal clear, it felt good. To make sure I wasn’t about to make a dumbass mistake, however, I sought the advice of two trusted allies: my therapist and my BFF — two women who are both caring and allergic to bullshit.
In talking to my therapist, I got wrapped around the axle in a story of I-don’t-know-what’s-good-for-me-because-I’m-broken-and-missing my ex-who-broke-me. During a pause, she said, “I trust your body. When you talk about him, I see your body giving clear ‘no’ messages.” She named what she saw expressed through my face, hands, and torso. When I checked inside, I saw she was right. My body was clearly saying NO to Darrell.
Healing trauma means healing the relationship we have with ourselves, and our knowing. Honoring the messages from inside — which took me decades to hear and trust again after being taught to ignore or belittle them — is a vital step to being able to live again, not just survive. Ignoring those messages in favor of an intellectual check sheet of how great someone or something is on paper is a recipe for disaster.
Ignoring or rejecting those messages is the equivalent of doing to myself what my mother did to me at age 29 when I expressed doubts about my soon-to-be husband: “Susana, he’s loved you his entire life!!” The subtext: “Don’t be a dumbass. Don’t be too choosy. Take what you can get. Crumbs are better than starvation. Don’t listen to yourself, you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know what’s good for you.”
I ended up saying “yes” to that marriage, and it was rife with neglect, abuse, rage, deception, and abandonment. I should have listened. To myself. My mother’s criticism ended years ago when she died, but I still run her scripts in my head.
But now, as soon as I said NO to Darrell, not only did I feel tons better — after a brief assertiveness hangover — I also stopped missing my ex. Turns out those feelings weren’t about him, but a message from the deep: “Remember what’s most important to you. What it’s like to feel alive. What you can’t live without, and what’s missing with this new man.”
Now that I’ve said NO, I’ve opened up my life to receiving more than crumbs. That is a bigass deal, and an epic move for my entire bloodline.
Like the situation with Darrell, staying in the organizational role came from a scarcity mentality, but with a different flavor. I had less of a Broken Susana Narrative there, but I stayed far too long out of hope for change. I was being patient, and “being the change.” I held back my growing NO out of a desire to not hurt other people. Out of a commitment to keep my promises. But I could see the writing on the wall — written by my own hand — and this time, I heeded it.
Once I resigned, I shared my decision with a fellow team member — a woman I’ve seen repeatedly overworked, dismissed, and disrespected by our peers. She shared (again) her own desire to quit, but declared she won’t because she “honors her commitments.” I don’t know if that was a (sub)conscious dig at my decision, but it hit on a tender spot of my self-doubt. It gave me pause.
But after reflection, I recognized the deep cultural story she was telling herself: If a woman enters into an agreement and the other party dishonors their commitment, she’s still required to stay and honor hers! If she enters into an interaction with a YES, then it starts to feel yucky or unsafe, she doesn’t get to change her mind. She doesn’t get to say NO when things shift. And her commitments to others are more important than any commitments to herself.
Another female colleague hit on a different tender spot when I shared the story of my resignation. “Well, you can’t change things unless you stay in,” she said. (Dammit, that “be the change” argument that’s kept me in so many activist and advocacy roles most of my life!) Those words provoked another painful tinge of self-doubt.
But, again, upon reflection I heard another deep cultural story this woman was telling herself: The only way to make change is to stay in a situation or place, even and especially when it feels yucky or even abusive.
That’s a nope for me. I just left a nearly 30-year career because I’m unwilling and unable to “stay in” despite the toll it takes, especially in the face of little-to-no effectiveness. Besides, people make change in all sorts of ways. Most of them are versions of NO: protests, boycotts, walkouts, and other forms of resistance and non-cooperation. Even violence and terrorism create some change, and they are definitely flavors of NO.
When asked for my feedback about what I might have changed in the organization I left, I offered the following metaphor: I was invited to a party, and the way it was described sounded like a good time, so I showed up. But when I arrived, the music wasn’t my jam, I couldn’t eat most of the food, and I didn’t like the other partygoers’ vibe. After a while, I decide to leave, and upon walking out the door, the host asks what they could do to get me to stay. The answer? Be an entirely different party.
I’ve spent nearly half a century trying to get the party to be a different one — different music, food, people, and even location. I tried it with my family, my schools, my jobs, my entire profession, and even the world itself. It doesn’t work. It’s futile, exhausting, and understandably alienating to others.
Now, I’d rather just find a different party, or throw my own. Or maybe I don’t want to go to a party at all. A lot of stuff just doesn’t matter. Sometimes staying in does lead to historic change, like the tenacious workers who refused to quit Amazon and formed the massive company’s first union. But the organization I left isn’t curbing the power of greedy corporations, protecting wildlife, reforming our election system, relocating refugees, or curing chronic diseases. It’s not worth the effort.
And ultimately, we can’t change anything except ourselves. While I didn’t resign in order to create change, I heard my resignation has catalyzed crucial conversations in the organization. It validated others’ feelings. It normalized that one can quit.
It perhaps demonstrated what happens when a woman says NO.
That’s huge. Consider the history of women’s consent and voice. For millennia, a woman saying NO has often meant our death. It’s meant rape, or exile from our family or entire village. It’s meant having our children taken away. Sometimes saying NO has meant all four were inflicted on us. This history is encoded in our DNA, in my bones. It was encoded in my mother’s voice admonishing me to settle for crumbs.
The hugeness of this power move is probably why I had three nightmares last week. In one, a large male demon had condemned me to death by throwing me down a long rocky crevasse. I saw him launch another woman down before me. I didn’t know what I had done, or why I was facing this fate, but I pleaded with him as he tipped me towards the edge. He said he’d think about it, but I was pretty sure that was only a manipulative delay designed to torture me further before my execution.
In the next dream, I was being held captive in an underground lab. Despite being treated fairly well, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t being readied for the positive task I thought I’d come to do. I was being prepared to be raped and tortured to death by a group of rich men, and the medication and prep were designed to keep me alive as long as possible. Again, I tried to reason and plead with them to let me go, or to let me be violated by only one or two men. There was no escape.
In the third, I was back in the home where I grew up, where a small girl had been mistreated for being hungry. I decided to rescue her. I RAGED at both of my parents for having shirked their most important job. I shouted righteous truths and showered expletives I never would have in real life. For the first time in a dream, my mother shrank from me. Not only were my abusive mother and ineffectual father powerless to stop me this time, but this time I also had support. When I rescued the girl, three younger extended family members helped.
Patriarchy and sexism are deep, ancient forces of evil — even and especially when embedded in other women, and enacted through our words. Female culture can be very oppressive. We are expected to acquiesce, to take care of others, to go along with the group — even when we don’t want to, or we know it’s wrong. Exclusion means isolation, which means death. This is also a trauma response, and a result of sexist oppression.
I don’t blame my colleagues, or judge any woman, who decides to stay, or to honor their commitments no matter how they’re treated. I just hope they do so on purpose. I hope they take full, conscious ownership of their choice, instead of doing so reflexively in response to a deep cultural story, or as a trauma response. I hope they don’t just automatically follow a script that they only deserve crumbs, or that crumbs are their only option.
Meanwhile, can we imagine? Imagine a world where women honored their commitments to themselves over commitments to others? A world where women privileged pleasure over duty — at least some of the time?
I sense the fear that rises up in response to that last question. This reaction reveals the heart of the problem. We over-rely on women to be the rocks, the adults, the virtuous ones. The ones who never cheat even when their men have babies with other women. The ones who stay in jobs even when men constantly act out with no consequences and regularly undervalue their contributions. We believe society would fall apart if women didn’t continue shouldering more than our share of the burdens everywhere we go.
Or would it? If women are such important social glue, such a vital life force for civilization, what would be possible if women really owned that? If we truly felt it, and lived from it? Indeed, some things would die and fall apart — many already are. And perhaps they should. But other things would live and sprout and grow in their place.
We humans often struggle with decisions because we’re much better acquainted with what will be lost than what can be gained. What will be lost is concrete, real, and in front of us. What can be gained is abstract, intangible, and off in the distance.
But the only way to know what’s on the other side of NO is to say NO. Once I did, I only regretted not having done so sooner. Every NO I’ve said in the last year of my life has led to a burst of energy, creativity, and relief. Indeed, those yeses that aren’t ours just weigh down our hearts, minds, and lives.
So try saying NO. It might change the world. Or just yours.