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I Said a Bad Word.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

My dad is a sailor. His dad is a sailor. On my mom's side: Papaw was an ex-Army farmer from the backwoods of Arkansas. As fate would have it, I have one helluva potty mouth.

But as a woman who is trying to begin her career, the foulest, dirtiest, most profane word I know is not the four-letter expletive that colors most of my conversations. Nope, the "F-word" is still fair game. The word that should hardly be uttered by a burgeoning academic is the word, "No."

"Yes" has gotten me quite far. "Yes" has allowed me to work with people who have changed my life, has provided me opportunities that have advanced my career--it even sparked my acceptance to a wonderful graduate program even when I thought my hopes for a doctorate had been dashed. "Yes" has taken me to France and will take me to Mexico to work with one of the most brilliant women I know. "Yes" has helped me climb out of my ennui-lined holes on numerous occasions. (Actually, this required a more qualified variation of yes: "Fine, I'll go--as long as I don't have to change out of my pajamas.")

So, after one particularly fantastic opportunity came along at the University and I said, "Yes, yes, a thousand times, YES!" I was surprised that my dissertation chair tells me this: "Stop agreeing to do things that don't pay you commensurate with your brilliance." That was his way of insisting that I say "yes" too much. Like me, he dabbles in the hyperbolic.

Well, mid-week this past week, I finally utter that forbidden word. I said "no" to some colleagues who had started a reading group. This was a difficult "no". They are spending the summer doing a close reading of a seminal text that is critical to my dissertation. It's one of those books that I've always read about and around and excerpts from but had never really read the whole thing (and isn't that the story of a grad student's life?). This was a hard "no". And I said "no:" because I was spending the summer teaching 3 classes at a community college, which I enjoy, but is really sapping my time and energy. It's taking me away from the real work I need to be doing on my dissertation. But it's also paying my bills.

I have never said "no" to an academic opportunity. I rarely say "no" to anyone, really, because I'm a people pleaser. I'm neurotic and self-conscious and have no self-esteem, so I tell myself that if I say "no", people won't like me. Or the world will end. Or someone will surely die. Or something equally irrationally melodramatic. But this week, to good friends and colleagues, I said, "no."

After I sent the "no" email, I panicked. I wanted to take it back! Please! I didn't mean it! I swear! But while I sat there wishing I had a degree in computer science so that I could hack into my friend's email account (because I believe everyone with more than a basic understanding of technology is secretly a stealth hacker), I realized that I was equally ashamed of myself as I was fearful of being ostracized. I was ashamed of myself for not being able to do it all. For not being good enough to take on everything everyone asked of me with grace and intellectual acumen.

That's when I knew I had done the right thing by saying "no". This has been a difficult insight to come to in my spiritual and emotional journey over the past few years. As the cliche goes: I'm my own worst enemy/critic. In fact, I thought about the people in my life, my mentors: brilliant, kind, wise men and women who have helped shape and inspire me and my work. One of the things these people have in common is their ability to discern what they can do, what they want to do, and what they need to do to keep their work life and personal life manageable, fresh, and exciting.

I know that I'm still on the cusp of a long career, and I know that I still have a lot of hoops to jump through and dues to pay. I do need to say "yes" more than I need to say "no". But when I do say "no", I need to say it with the confidence that it is the right thing for me to do. I need to realize that people won't hate me for it.

This week was a week that was ripe for dropping the ball in my physical journey. Had I not said "no", I would have been overwhelmed, over worked, over stimulated, and I would have succumbed to the stress-eating crutch that I'm trying so hard to hang up for good. And, in fact, even having said "no" and having one less thing on my plate, I was STILL incredibly busy, stressed, and overwhelmed. And yet, I stayed in my calorie range. I did not binge after a long, long day. I (miraculously) made time for exercise.

And my colleague responded to my "no" email. Not only did he not hate me, but was so disappointed that I was unable to participate that he was willing to move the whole darn thing to a time that was convenient for me.

Hell, I might go on a "No" spree!

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