I cringe thinking about my early existence up until about my mid-20s or so, and all of the people I left hanging, all of the promises broken, all of the things I said I’d do and then…didn’t do.
You know how you often see those memes or webcomics about how you’re all ready for bed after a long, hard day; you’re tired, you’re exhausted, your head hits heavy on the pillow and then BAM. Your eyes pop open with a startle and a shudder because you’re suddenly bombarded with the excruciating memory of that really humiliating thing you did or that embarrassing thing that happened to you when you were in the seventh grade? My personal version of this scenario is being suddenly reminded of all the people I’ve let down, that time I didn’t make a deadline after I swore I timeliness, that afternoon I flaked out and didn’t meet someone, somewhere, when I agreed that I would.
In retrospect… I did these things a lot.
In looking back on myself with a kinder gaze, I know why I did this, and it often had to do with situations that required boundaries and advocating for myself. I was always trying to please everyone or avoid conflict and in doing so, I frequently ended up overextending myself. It’s possible that at that time in my life I wasn’t self-aware enough to realize that while something sounded good at the moment, I was never going to follow through with the plan. And most often, I just flaked out of a situation because I was scared and anxious about it.
If I needed extra time, I should have asked for it. If I didn’t want to do something, I should have spoken up. If something seemed scary, it would have been helpful for me to explain it to the person whose request I was acquiescing to, so that they could have the opportunity to support me. Or at least so they knew that even though I agreed to do something, it was going to be a struggle for me!
I still feel guilty these many years later about that time I told my sister that I would meet her on campus to sign up for classes, and then I just… never showed up. I didn’t intend on taking any classes that semester and I was too scared to tell her — so I just did the easy thing at the time, which was telling her, “yeah sure, see you there” instead of “hey, I think you need to know I’m not planning on going to school right now.” What was easier for me at that moment was definitely not easier for me down the road, when I had to make up my excuses about not showing up that day, and then continue lying for the next few months about the classes I wasn’t taking.
I suppose this is on my mind because yesterday I did a thing I had been dreading terribly. I had agreed to do it because I knew it would probably be a good experience that would benefit me in the long run, and so there was really no question about whether or not I was actually going through with it. I said I would, so I did. And this is because as I have gotten older, I have been able to look outside myself and beyond my fears to finally see it from the other person’s perspective: they asked something of me, and I said yes. They are depending on me for whatever it was that I agreed to. They are trusting me to uphold my end of the bargain. And whatever temporary relief I would feel from backing out would definitely not be worth knowing that this person’s experience with me left a sour taste in their mouth, and not only would they probably not want to work with me again, who knows what they might have to say about me to other people?
Having spent the majority of my youth being the person most likely to flake out on a friend or family member, it is extremely important to me now to feel that I am someone reliable and trustworthy. That I can be depended upon to hold up my end of the bargain.
…AND WOW. I am reading back over all of this right now and it sounds SO self-righteous and sanctimonious, so please listen:
-I understand that last-minute issues and emergencies come up and plans fall through.
-I understand that my chronically ill friends are frustratingly challenged when it comes to making and keeping plans. I am definitely writing from a place of privilege and relatively decent health here and I recognize this.
-I understand that everyone is at a different place in their life’s path, and we are all just doing the best we can.
I guess what I am getting at is this. Sometimes I write things here about my experiences so that other people can connect with and perhaps gain something from them. I don’t think that’s what blog entry is for. This is not advice for you. And if you are reading this and thinking this is about you, it is not. I promise. This is about me recognizing something good about myself and celebrating and sharing. I used to be a certain way, and now I am not, and I am incredibly proud of myself for that. And of course, I screw up. I still hate to tell people no. I still have to extend deadlines or postpone a phone call or possibly disappoint someone when I can’t be as timely as I like. I’m not perfect.
For example, in the last few years, I tried to be part of a thing that entailed doing something on a fairly regular basis that made me terribly anxious and uncomfortable. I gave it my best, more than once, and I found that I just couldn’t. It was awful and I hated it. Instead of continuing to RSVP and then make excuses as to why I couldn’t attend, I finally spoke up and explained that this was a thing I could not do.
And you know what? It was fine. Because those few moments of vulnerability and an embarrassing confession were so much less painful than doing a thing that made me so unhappy, and now I don’t have to worry about it anymore. Another example is when I asked a certain organization whether or not they would be interested in doing an interview with me. When they agreed, I told them I would have a Q&A over to them in a month or two. Which because I had overextended myself, turned into two or three months. I reached out and apologized for the delay and asked if they were still interested. They replied that they were and that I should just feel free to get to it whenever I got to it and that would be fine. Well, it took a whole damn year, but I finally did send them that Q&A. I tried to do what I said I would do, but when I couldn’t do it in a timely way, I communicated and kept in touch as best as I could about it to make them aware of the timeline.
So as a human person, despite the strides I’ve made, sure, I still screw up. But I realized when I’d bitten off more than I could chew, comfort-wise, and I handled it. I recognized that my timing was quite far off from what I had anticipated, but I still wanted to make the thing work so I handled that too. Imperfectly, but these too, are things I am proud of.
I did stress that writing all of this was more for me than it was for you, BUT, if you are someone who is looking to make some improvements on your personal reliability, this is what I can tell you:
-If you could turn back time, do not agree to those plans. But you can’t, so future-you needs to remember that if you don’t want to do something, don’t say you’ll do it. But present-you had probably better do it, because you said you would.
-But seriously, the next time you’re called on to do something, really take a moment to ask yourself whether you have the bandwidth to make good on the promise. Declining now is far better than breaking your word later.
-If you have to cancel plans, do it NOW. Do not wait. Did you wait? OK WELL DO IT NOW. But especially do not wait until the last minute.
-By that same token, if you are running late, let your friend know. It’s a text that takes like two seconds. It’s polite. Don’t just show up twenty minutes late, like it’s no big deal. People’s time is worth something. Even your friend’s time. Especially your friend’s time. When you show up late with no explanation and without having notified them, you are basically saying “you? I shit on your time!”
-Are you a young junior baby employee? Maybe you haven’t been in the workforce very long and you don’t have much experience with keeping your boss or your manager happy? A good thing to remember is that if you are going to be late, even a few minutes late–call and let someone in your office/store/restaurant/whatever know about it. If you are not going to be at work, don’t just not show up. You have to inform someone so that they know what’s going on with you and they can plan a shift or a schedule accordingly. I worked with many college interns a few years ago, and there was nothing worse than when my boss asked me “hey, where’s so-n-so today?” And I had to tell him that I had no idea, they were scheduled and they didn’t show up, and they didn’t even call about it. That made ME look bad. So try and look at it from that point of view. Your showing up late or shrugging off your shift might not just reflect poorly on you. It’s affecting other people, too.
-Plan, I mean really plan for your deadlines. If that means parceling them out in small chunks or time blocks on your google calendar, complete with notifications, do that. Put your appointments and meetings in your calendar or your planner or your phone. Don’t expect yourself to remember everything you’ve got going on. You can’t. So write it down and keep it handy. If you are disorganized and forgetful, that can translate as dismissive and inconsiderate.
-Ask for help. I don’t know what this might mean for you, but for me, this might mean asking a family member to remind me at least 24 hours before we’re scheduled to have a Skype call. Or I will ask my partner for extra support, encouragement, and ultimately lots of tough love if needed, because maybe I have agreed to do something really scary but that I know will benefit my personal growth… and also I know I will want to talk myself out of it, every step of the way. You might require different kinds of help with your different situations. It’s worth making a list of where you might run into trouble, who it is that may be able to assist you, and what it is exactly that they could do.
At the end of the day, I am still the person who is happiest when plans are canceled. My sister and I– the same one I stood up in the registrar’s office– have in the past paid for concert tickets many months in advance (and this is more than once, mind you) and then looked at one another on the evening of the event, each already knowing what the other is thinking. We just don’t be the one who has to say it out loud. “Do you REALLY want to go to this thing tonight?” “No! Do YOU?” “OH THANK GOD, LET’S JUST STAY HOME.”
In the canny words of comedian John Mulaney, who was not talking about this blog, but rather a comedy special:
“I appreciate you coming to a thing because you didn’t have to, and it’s really easy not to go to things. It is so much easier not to do things than to do them, that you would do anything is totally remarkable. Percentage-wise, it is 100% easier not to do things than to do them. And so much fun not to do them, especially when you are supposed to do them. In terms of, like, instant relief, canceling plans is like heroin. It is an amazing feeling. Such instant joy.”
It’s definitely easier not to do things. But if you cancel on me, I am probably not going to be mad at you. I understand where you’re coming from, and I get it. But I hope you know I am super easy to talk to and if you didn’t want to do it in the first place, you totally could have told me! And hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you, too. That I don’t want to go to your thing. That way when I don’t show up, you weren’t even expecting me! And as long as you call me if you’re running late, we’re never gonna have a problem.