selflessness or the fear of saying no?

There’s a theme that has been coming to my attention for quite a while now. Usually when that happens, it means I need to take a good look at how the theme might apply to me. Then I make changes if I need to and I’m brave enough. The theme that keeps popping up has to do with putting others’ needs before my own.

lit red and white candle lot on person s back
Photo by Ferdinand Studio on

I attended a storytelling event over the weekend in which some of the stories seemed to focus around the basic dynamic of what might be described as uncomfortable selflessness. One of the women relayed an incident in which a man interacted with her in a way that was uncomfortable but which she continually excused, dismissing her own discomfort as an overreaction. During the incident, she was more concerned about his needs and potential discomfort than she was about her needs and actual discomfort. The result was her rape. At the end of her story she vowed to never let the needs of someone, especially someone who showed no real concern about her, to outweigh any discomfort she felt.

I have a long history of overriding my needs to satisfying another’s. It’s a wonderfully loving act if you feel good about it but so often I didn’t. I wanted to believe it was a form of altruism but the reality was that it was closer to martyrdom.

The host of the storytelling event described his own similarly uncomfortable incident except that he framed it quite differently. He didn’t think of himself as being someone who was satisfying the needs of another with little regard for his suffering. He described his behavior as being that of someone who hadn’t learned how to say ‘no’.

So simple. So straight to the point. When I thought about it, I realized that that was the truth of the matter for me. Thinking of it as ‘selfless’ was just a way for me to feel better.

Removing the illusion of selflessness from my perception of the dynamic, I can make adjustments I need. I just need to be brave.

For such a small word, ‘no’ fills me with dread, anxiety, and fear.

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