When we were children, we were always taught to be courteous. Offer guests coffee, my mother would say. Never ask anyone to leave, it’s rude. True hospitality requires catering to the whims of your guests.
As we grow, these lessons leach into other aspects of our lives. We scramble to find excuses to decline an invitation to hang out because just saying “no” is offensive. We bite our tongues when it would behoove us to speak up for ourselves, because asking for something is burdensome for others. And, as we continue to give our agency away for the sake of social norms, we dig ourselves into a hole.
Let me tell you a story about apologizing.
I, like many others, have an intrinsic fear of loneliness. As such, I have always been terrified of accidentally pushing my loved ones away. When I needed a friend, when I had a bad day, when I ate up someone’s time by being upset, I constantly apologized, afraid that my friends and family would resent me for wasting their time.
I’m sorry for being sad. I’m sorry for needing you. I’m sure you had more important things to do.
Often, my mother, my friends, and my family, would smile and say, it’s no problem. Because they love me, and that’s what love is; sacrifices to help those you love. But the guilt ate away at me, because, above all else, I didn’t want to be a burden to my loved ones.
Although my family’s response to the constant apologies seems considerate and adequate, the way my loved ones “forgave” me for taking their time only validated the fear that had coiled itself deep within me: that they resented me for the intrusion. Thus the cycle continued, until I started to distance myself from others, sure that my struggles were not worth their time. I began to hide in my room, consoling myself safely away from prying eyes.
It wasn’t until I came to college that I realized that it was impossible for me to experience my emotions privately. Living in a freshmen dorm with a roommate and twenty other people in the hall made it incredibly difficult to get away with secretive tears. Soon enough, a friend of mine (this girl would later become my very best friend at DU) found me and comforted me as I sat on the floor underneath the staircase. When I apologized for distracting her from her ostensibly heavy load of homework, she sat back, looking at me rather sternly. You’re being ridiculous, she said. You don’t apologize to the people you love for helping you. You thank them instead.
Feeling rather silly, I nodded and thanked her and tried to move on with my day. It wasn’t until later that night that I truly mulled over her words. Perhaps she was right—perhaps this was an easy way to stop feeling sorry for myself, and an even easier way to strengthen my bonds with the people I loved.
Such an easy fix. Thank you instead of I’m sorry.
So I began to use this in my day-to-day life, switching out the words “I’m sorry” for “Thank you”. And not only did it begin to make my friends feel more gratified, it helped me regain a sense of self-worth and reminded me that the people who love me want to help me—they are not obligated. I began to feel closer with my loved ones, and started to be happier in general. Acceptance of my own emotions allowed me to process them in a timely and thorough manner, allowing me to spend more time on what actually matters.
Self-advocacy is a nuanced concept, and it isn’t always easy to implement. It takes years of practice of self-love to get it right. But this switch, this small exchange of a pair of words for another, has helped me in ways beyond my imagining. Valuing the time that my friends have given me, and in turn valuing myself, has given me the confidence to feel more comfortable with saying the word “no”, whether it be to friends or acquaintances. Furthermore, the choice to prioritize myself and my own well-being has made me happier and healthier, which allows me to be more emotionally available to help my loved ones in return.
You can’t help others if you can’t help yourself. You can’t love others fully if you don’t love yourself. Luckily, the transition of self-advocacy and self-love can be easy, when taken in small bites.