I spent one college summer working as a programmer for my university’s civil engineering department. I sat at a little desk with a little drawer, which locked with a little key. Atop the desk loomed a hulking CRT monitor along with a dusty keyboard. (I’m so old!)
We, a handful of junior programmers, were packed into the small windowless room. I worked five days a week but careful not to exceed the department’s limit of 40 hours/week. Next to me sat Michael, a fellow civil engineering student. He had a little desk with a little drawer and a little key.
Michael hailed from rural Wyoming and sported a chevron mustache. He was gregarious, and we became friends while debating obscure points of politics, physics, and personal responsibility.
He loved playing BattleMechs, which is a board game where players control little war machines (aka ‘Mechs) with dice rolls and pages and pages of accounting forms. It’s a hyper-violent game of accounting.
So one Saturday, Michael invited me over for a game. I’d never played anything like it and didn’t immediately grasp the game mechanics. I had fun spending an afternoon with a friend, but to be honest, I didn’t have fun with the game.
One week later, Michael asked, “When are you coming over for another round of BattleMechs?” I had zero interest in the game, but I felt uncomfortable saying so. I told him I had other plans but left the door open with, “Maybe another weekend.”
Michael was okay with this. At least the first time. But the third excuse annoyed him. In contrast to my indirect communication style, Michael was direct. And aggressive. One time his wife had an issue with their landlord and Michael cranked up his favorite Stone Temple Pilots album to get him amped up and ready to rumble with the landlord.
My noncommittal responses pissed him off. He finally confronted me, “If you don’t like BattleMechs, just say so.” I wanted to say so. I just couldn’t. Worse yet, I didn’t know why.
As the summer came to a close, our friendship soured.
In Fall Semester, I switched to computer science and enrolled in several demanding courses. To balance my academic load, I quit my job. I still remember emptying my little desk drawer and returning my little key.
I suppose Michael continued with his civil engineering degree. I don’t think I ever saw him again.
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about this experience. What I should have said was, “Thanks, but BattleMechs isn’t really my thing.” But saying this—or any form of No—was really hard. I felt tremendous stress. So I said Yes. To everyone, and everything. And I did this throughout my 20s and part of my 30s.
Then I discovered something about myself, something that explains a good chunk of my people-pleasing: I don’t trust people to be reasonable. I fear they’ll feel disappointed if I say No. And punish me. Not with physical violence, but with a snub or a cold shoulder. I imagine them gossiping to their friends about me, who, in turn, ostracize me. In short, saying No means I die alone.
This type of thinking sounds ridiculous: the vast majority of people won’t be wounded when you tell them No. They won’t retaliate with life-long vendettas. And yet, part of me whispers, “But what if they do?”
The irony is that I’m fine with people saying No to me. I’m reasonable, after all! On occasion, I feel a tinge of disappointment. But it’s quickly forgotten as I go about my life.
And yet, for the longest time, I didn’t believe others were reasonable. I acted like I was the center of the universe, and if I upset anyone, they’d never forget it! So I took great pains not to make waves or ruffle feathers. I ran my honest opinions through a sieve, which filtered out all the bits that might rankle others. Honesty was incompatible with people-pleasing.
But I found a way out, a way to trust others. It began when I accepted that I’m not the center of humanity. I’m one of seven billion souls. Each of them has their own life, their own goals, and their own worries. Their lives won’t shatter when I don’t attend a particular event at a particular time. I’m just not that important!
In retrospect, my behavior was silly. Even absurd. I behaved as if I was the king of a medieval realm, and saying No would have political ramifications for years to come. But I’m not a king. I’m not even a royal. I’m just a random dude blogging for a handful of regular readers. As I said, I’m just not that important.
Realizing my own insignificance was incredibly freeing. I can politely decline things and trust that other people will be perfectly fine. Their life will continue. Because I’m not the center of their universe. They are!
This freedom extends to other parts of my life, too. The world doesn’t care—or even notice!—how I dress or how I spend my time. I can wear plaid shirts and write on my little blog, and no one cares. I’m not beholden to anyone beyond my wife and kiddos.
I cannot express how liberating this is. I can say No and genuinely believe that others will be okay. Because I’m just not that important.