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How do I teach myself to ask for what I want?

 

This issue has been coming up a lot lately, as I work towards self-publishing my first novel, and looking for actual jobs. One of my deepest, and most consuming, lifelong beliefs has been that someone else has to tell me that I deserve to be published, preferably someone with their name on book jackets around the world. And someone important has to tell me that I deserve a good job. I don’t believe that I’m supposed to ask for what I want; it has to be offered to me, or else I have no idea if I have a right to it.

This puts some serious limitations on my life, as you can imagine. It takes an enormous amount of work, and days, weeks, and months of self-loathing, to push myself to ask for things despite my underlying concerns. Rejection generally feels like a confirmation of what I already think about myself: that I, fundamentally, don’t deserve to get what I want.

In one of my social work textbooks, it said that, according to research, it takes four positive comments for your brain to process what you’ve heard, compared to a single negative comment. And I grew up with a ratio of closer to one positive comment to ten thousand negative comments, so my self-image makes sense, scientifically. And when I look at the piles of rejections, from agents and publishers and magazines and schools, I can’t escape the belief that all of those negative comments were true.

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“Just listen to me, Mommy.”

I want to feel like it’s okay to self-publish my novel, and to ask people to buy it, even without the middle man of a publisher telling them that I’m worth it. And I want to feel confident applying for jobs, or asking for help from friends, or coworkers, or teachers. I want to feel like I can ask for attention from people when I want it, and not always believe that someone else deserves it more than I do. But I don’t know how to get there. I had hoped that three and half years of school, and internships, and facing one fear after another, would change this. But I am still me.

There are people who are kind, compassionate, and generous who are also ambitious and willing to ask for what they want. They are confident enough in their self-worth that, whether they succeed or fail, they continue to believe in themselves and persist. That doesn’t describe me. My inner monologue rips me to pieces as soon as I send out a query letter, or fill in an application, or even look at a listing for a job opportunity.

Part of the problem is that I can only remember the times when what I wanted was ignored or deemed impossible. I can’t remember the successes, even though I’m sure there were many. I can’t remember being offered things that I wanted, even though I’m sure that’s happened too. My brain is pre-programmed with these glitches and I don’t know how to change that.

Asking for attention is scary, because I never know what kind of attention I’ll get in response. I’m not someone who prefers negative attention to no attention. If anything, my default choice is invisibility. I don’t even need an invisibility cloak, I just stop making eye contact. If I can’t see you, you can’t see me. Right?

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An invisibility hat?

But I want more attention. I have things I want to say, that I think other people might want or need to hear. But more than that, I’m tired of being invisible. The transition to being more visible has been slow, and painful, but it still seems to be something I want. Especially as a writer.  I want to believe that I deserve to be published, not simply because everyone should have the right to be heard, but, competitively, I want to believe that my voice has value to other people and is worth hearing. But that’s so hard to sit with, for me. Its feels like arrogance, and I automatically cover my face with my hands in anticipation of slings and arrows coming my way.

I still don’t have a thick enough skin to protect me from criticisms and rejections, because I always think I should take them in and take them to heart. I don’t quite know when I’m allowed to ignore the negativity.

Miss Cricket always seemed to be able to ask for what she wanted, until Ellie arrived. Then, suddenly, Cricket was more demure, waiting behind Ellie, not sure if she should come forward and ask for her share of the treats. I’ve had to make a point of creating a space for Cricket, so that she knows that she deserves what she wants. It’s not Ellie’s fault, though. She’s willing to share, but something in Cricket shrinks back. Ellie is a superstar at asking for what she wants, but she’s also able to adapt to a No without losing her spirit. Somehow, I will have to teach Cricket, and myself, how to follow Ellie’s lead.

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“Try using puppy dog eyes, they always work for me.”

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“Like this?”

This might take a while.

My Favorite Word is No

For most of my life, I’ve used the word “No” as a staple; like the pasta, rice, and potatoes of my social diet. I threw in Yeses very carefully and intentionally, like salt and pepper, or a sprinkle of Parmesan, for flavor.

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“Did you say Parmesan?”

I have had to work very hard to add the word “Yes” into my vocabulary, because I tend to feel overwhelmed by the cascade caused by even one small yes. Saying yes to graduate school in social work has put me into an avalanche of situations and expectations that I can’t really say no to, because they were all included in that first yes.

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“Saying no is much more fun!”

I know people who are much more comfortable with yeses, maybe because they have more faith that the universe won’t give them more than they can handle (I strenuously disagree), or because they have faith in their own ability to adapt to whatever comes (I definitely don’t have that).

 

I think my willingness to say “Yes” to more opportunities was instigated by all of the No’s I received: all of the rejections for my writing, rejections of friendship or love, failures to make progress in directions that mattered to me. I had to start saying “Yes” to things that might genuinely come to pass, even if they were not what I had imagined for myself.

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Cricket hates when people say no to her.

I’ve said yes to going to doctors again, though that doesn’t feel great. I’ve said yes to dog-sitting and even bird-sitting, but not to adopting a new dog, not yet. I’ve said yes to all of the work I need to do for my master’s degree in social work, whether I like it or not, agree with it or not. I force myself to say “Yes” even when I desperately want to say no. And as a result, I feel less like myself, and less in touch with myself.

 

 

My instinct to say No was about retaining my independence, and my individuality. Saying “Yes” feels like an acceptance of the world as it is, and a loss of my hope that the world can be better. And yet, as I have learned to say “Yes” to more things, I have begun to feel more capable, and more likely to survive. I just hope that some of those yeses will transform into a life that I love. Someday.

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Cricket is dubious.

 

The End of the First Year

 

I finished my first year of graduate school in social work, but I still feel anxious, as if there’s some assignment I forgot to do. I did not get all A’s this year, for the first time in forever, and that’s been hard to accept. I did all of the assigned work, and more, but there was some essential disjunct between the work required of me and the way my mind works. I just felt at odds with it all year, but not in a self-righteous or confident way, more like, every once in a while they started speaking in a language I couldn’t understand, and I felt like a moron.

It’s not just a question of jargon, where, once I learned what they meant by certain words, I could catch up. It was something in the way they wanted me to think that just didn’t click for me, and I’m scared that this gulf will remain throughout the next two and a half years of school, and then out into the professional world, and I will never feel quite right in this profession.

I don’t know if the dogs noticed that I was in school this year, because most of the work was done online. They can’t tell the difference between schoolwork and the writing I actually want to do. Or if they can, they haven’t told me. The real difficulty, for them, will come in August when I start going to my internship two or three days a week, and I’m not home for their midday walk. Hopefully, Grandma will be home for lunch and they will not notice the difference, but naptime may be delayed and that will, of course, be horrifying.

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“Delayed?”

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“Seriously?”

Now that I’m free to return to my own writing for the summer, though, it feels like I’m jumping off a cliff. Fiction is unfamiliar terrain again, after being immersed in academic writing all year. I’ve heard people call it code switching, when you talk (or write) differently depending on your audience, but I don’t transition easily, and part of me is afraid that if I let myself fall back into fiction this summer, I’ll have to relearn a whole year’s worth of tropes when school starts again in August.

It doesn’t help that I’ve been collecting so many rejections for my writing over the past few years. The rejections, and the reality they laid bare, that my writing could not be relied on as my career, is what led me to social work school in the first place. But being in school feels like I’m validating those rejections, and saying that I never was that good to begin with. And I’m afraid that if I write something I’m proud of, I’ll want to send it out, to literary magazines and agents, and it will be the same horror all over again. I hate that the publishing industry has gotten me so defeated that I’m afraid to write any more novels. I’m angry that I can’t see a way forward, and to protect myself I seem to have shut myself down.

I’ve been working on blog posts, of course, and articles for my synagogue newsletter, which have given me an opportunity to practice my interviewing and research skills, and to get to know people better and offer something to my community. But I want to write novels. I want to be a writer, not a social worker, not a reporter, not a do-gooder. I want to tell MY stories. The gulf, between my social worker self and my writer self, is getting wider instead of smaller, and my resentment at becoming a social worker is growing.

I need to find a way to survive the process of becoming a social worker, because I really do want to help people; I want to hear their stories and find ways to relieve their anxiety and confusion, at least a little bit. I want being a social worker to develop into something (almost) as satisfying as being a dog mom. I mean, sure, I get annoyed when the girls wake me up early from a nap, or bark incessantly and refuse to tell me why, but mostly I feel shaped and calmed by taking care of them. It’s a set of rituals and a relationship that I rarely take for granted, and I rely on them heavily for my sense of self, and structure, and love.

 

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The oxytocin rush alone is staggering.

 

I Am Sisyphus

 

My therapist says that I keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what, and she gives me an A for effort. She expects it of me, and she’s proud of me for it, but also disappointed, because my efforts never really seem to pay off. Most of the time I feel like Sisyphus, who was punished by the gods and forced to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, again and again for eternity. Sisyphus did the task each day. He didn’t just sit at the bottom of the hill and take a nap. But why not?

My dogs don’t mind pushing the same rock up the same hill every day, in fact, they seem to find new excitement in each trip outside, each stop at each leaf, each squirrel sighting. Cricket can put the same level of oomph into fighting me for extra treats every single day.

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Cricket has a very big mouth.

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Butterfly can fly!

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“Leafies!!!!!!!!”

The thing is, the dogs don’t mind the repetition in their lives because their needs are met. Their rituals work for them and are productive and satisfying. Mine don’t work for me. I keep submitting queries to agents, and stories to magazines, and getting nowhere, and I feel like I deserve this, because I haven’t paid off my debt to the universe yet. I just don’t know how I managed to build up such a huge debt.

One of the boulders I push up the hill every day is pure physical pain. Well, pure is a misnomer, because there is always the underlying belief that I cause the pain myself, with my very powerful mind. I am not always in pain, or at least not always in a lot of pain. Some days I’m just aware of something in the background, a niggling doubt that I can really carry that laundry bag, or walk to the car, or dry my hair, without having to take a nap afterward. Do I go out to do the food shopping, or do I take the girls for a walk around the neighborhood? Because I can’t do both in the same day. Some weeks, I can’t do both in the same week. By the end of food shopping, sometimes I can’t stand up straight and my neck and shoulders and back feel like they’ve been hit with hammers.

If I take the dogs out walking long enough to wear Cricket out, I will come home feeling like the world is tilting and a fiery cleaver is embedded in my lower back. And this is something I actually want to do! Forget about the laundry, which I never want to do, or washing dishes, which is truly heinous, and can put me out of commission within five minutes. Why must sinks be so short?!

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“Walkies?”

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“How about we just sit here?”

Physical pain, though, only puts me to bed, where I can still read, or write, or sleep. It’s the emotional pain that takes the gloss right out of my life; it twists how I see and hear and taste and smell; it tells me that I earned this physical pain because I am bad and lazy and useless and disgusting; it tells me that I am Sisyphus and I earned this.

In our society we believe that people get the lives they deserve. If you are successful, it’s because you earned it. If you are a failure, well, you must not have tried very hard. Sisyphus had no choice about his life-long task, and in a way, that’s how I feel too. I have been sentenced to this fate because I can’t breathe without writing. I don’t believe it has been pre-determined by God or by an external authority, but it is so hard-wired into my nervous system that I can’t choose something else.

Do I have the option of attempting more accomplishable tasks? Yes. I take on other tasks all the time that are easier to complete. Maybe Sisyphus did this too. Maybe he learned a language, or listened to books on tape, or the equivalent, as he pushed the boulder up the hill. Maybe he didn’t even see his task as meaningless because the effort itself was satisfying. I don’t know.

Cricket doesn’t need to catch the squirrel in order to find the chase satisfying. She has never actually caught a squirrel, and it doesn’t seem to dim her excitement for the task. I wish I could be more like her. Maybe she understands that even if she caught the squirrel and lived out her dreams, she would still need to get up the next morning and eat and play and chase again in order to feel alive. Getting that boulder to the top of the hill wouldn’t really change anything.

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“Hey, Cricket, what ya doin’ in there?”