Updated: Jan 30, 2020
I’m on a first name basis with the dishwasher repair guy.
Five years ago when we remodeled our Central Carrollton area duplex in New Orleans into a single family home, my attention was on two goals: an updated color palette and a state-of-the-art, flashy kitchen. I’d been operating out of a glamorized kitchenette for six years where everything worked, but it was about as vanilla as your basic four door sedan--reliable but boring.
After several months of tearing out pages from design magazines, hoarding samples and paint swatches, and renderings and re-renderings, my u-shaped kitchen began to make its anticipated entry. With the white custom cabinets braced, the black granite set, and the last of the sea glass backsplash tile grouted, my appliances, on hold in a warehouse for five months, were finally installed. My how they sparkled and oh, the fun we’d have pressing all the neat buttons! I was one with the Jetsons--a button, bell, and whistle for everything I needed. I could deep freeze a steak in minutes, proof a loaf of bread while simultaneously roasting a chicken, and all while my dishes were scrubbed, rinsed, and sanitized for me.
Five years later, I’m on my second refrigerator, awaiting the delivery of my third dishwasher, and it’s worth speculating that my warranty company has a hit out on me.
At his last visit, Frank, the repair guy, was scratching the belly of my dog who no longer barked at him because he had become such a regular in our house. And while I was happy the dog was getting some extra attention and that Frank and I no longer required awkward small talk, I really didn’t want to ever see him again. I just wanted a dishwasher that produced actually cleaned dishes and one that didn’t leak, retain water, or build up with brown, smelly goo.
“Frank, be, well, frank with me,” I said as the dog licked his cheek. “Which appliances do you repair the least?”
“The simple ones, ma’am,” he said. “Appliances are like people. The more you give them to do, the more likely they are to break.”
I was speechless. Frank was now repairman, preferred by my dog, and healer because I wondered after he left and as the dog moped, if he had just single-handedly cured me from a lifelong ailment.
I’ve been a people pleaser for the better part of my adulthood. I’m a classic yes-man, ass-kisser, bootlicker, lickspittle and all the other charming names my lot receives. The shame is deserved.
It’s Monday morning. The kids are at school and the dogs are on their first nap of the day. I’ve got coffee on one side, sunlight streaming on the other, and my laptop fired up to produce some Pulitzer-winning prose. Only, I’ve got about an hour to get it done. I’ve promised to serve king cake at recess, bring Mom to the doctor, pick up dry cleaning, and call the time-share company about that condo for summer vacation before the deadline expires, which is today at 5 p.m. In theory, this is all completely manageable, except that I managed none of it from the start.
I signed up to serve king cake the night before, in spite of the deadlines and doctor’s appointment, because the email requesting volunteers sounded desperate. I agreed to take Mom to the doctor because, duh, she’s my mom, but I failed to get ahead with my work so that I could go. The dry cleaning and the time-share? They are the casualties of people pleasing. I’d forgotten to pick up the dry cleaning the last eight days while I was busy doing other things I took on at the last minute. The phone call for the time-share? It's been on my to do list since November, but I kept putting it off for other things. Now, I will be distracted handing out king cakes, thinking about the work I didn’t do and that I might be late getting Mom. I will be late getting Mom. I’ll be equally distracted with her, but I won’t learn my lesson. It will all happen again tomorrow. Except tomorrow, I’ll keep a friend waiting for drinks and I’ll still haven’t picked up the dry cleaning.
People pleasing appears generous and selfless. It may even warrant marveling, “I don’t know how she does it.” But it is neither generous nor selfless. When I agree to do something for someone without supplying an honest time frame in which it will be done, or without forethought, I often let more people down with half-assed effort than if I had just said no in the first place. I end my day with guilt rather than pride and with the hopelessness that I’ll never be accomplished at anything-- no better than a flashy dishwasher with false promises.
Assertive people present facts. They can or cannot do something. If they can, they can have it done by X time or can only do it within X time frame. People pleasers agree on instinct without mention of time. Assertive people may explain the circumstances as to the limits of their generosity, but after doing so they move forward with their decision, confident with their honesty. People pleasers hem and haw internally, knowing they are exceeding their limits, and they give themselves no choice but to feel guilt because they promise too much.
So if people pleasers are so miserable, why can’t we learn from the assertive and start saying, “No”?
After several unsuccessful repairs, I’ve determined the answer unfortunately lies within and it is only from there that we can change.
We need a recall.
People pleasers and the passive aggressive, my cohorts in the struggle to buck up and grow up, we have unknowingly spent far too long sabotaging ourselves to the extent that we lack the confidence to state our limits. We have somehow trained ourselves to feel bad about what we can’t do, to feel guilty for putting our needs first, and we have become accustomed to an existence of disorder. We’re late and mismanaged, and worst of all we put ourselves last so often that those who matter most are the brunt of built up resentment. When I lash out at my kids, am I really mad at them? Or am I mad at myself, having once again aimed too high? The irony is that when I am told no by another, I understand. So isn’t it logical that if the next time I say no, I will be understood? But what if I’m not? Then what? The assertive lack the kind of uncertainty that cares.
I know enough to know that people pleasers have the best of intentions. But the tricky thing about intentions is if we have to explain them after we’ve failed, how legitimate was our goal to begin with?
When I was a speech and debate competitor in high school, an old U.S. vet coached those of us competing for the Veterans of Foreign Wars speech contests. He was beyond assertive. He was no nonsense, no fluff. His sound and straightforward advice to us?
“Keep it simple, Stupid.”
Our job was to deliver a clear message without confusion over intentions.
And so, like the dishwasher of my dreams, if I am to be generous with my working parts for anyone, especially myself, I need to keep it simple. I need to disclose my limits with assurance that those who really matter won’t ask for a recall.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.