Saying yes, saying no

My mother calls me a shapeshifter, she has for years. The term was applied with an admiring shake of the head each time I showed up with a different look—different hair, different outfit, different vibe. I liked this description. Now I wonder if I’ve always had many shapes or if I’ve never known who I really am.

I wasn’t aware of wanting to erase myself. But I did want to leave as much space as possible for the people around me to do their own thing, unencumbered by anything I might do or say. I collect people—their stories, their faces and body language when talking about something that moves them. I drink them in. I want to see everything, taste everything, travel everywhere, learn everything. I have a hunger that is hard to assuage. Maybe this is because I came close to dying when I was a young woman. Some of it is certainly a result of that experience. But more and more I think it comes from a need to feel ok in myself. To compare myself to others and understand whether how I feel is normal or whether I’m having a totally weird life inside this skin of mine.

This endless hunger, this searching, this wanting inside me means I don’t often say no, I say yes. Yes to drugs, yes to picking up and leaving on vacation. Yes to fancy dinners, to another round of drinks, to another partner. Yes to things I should say no to, and then yes again because I don’t want to be governed by should. I’ve been feeding a bottomless need for more. More life, more feelings, more knowledge. And money flows through my hands, making it happen. I don’t like limits. When someone tells me I can’t do something it makes me want it that much more. And I’ve lived most of my life sneaking around the limits, keeping secrets, telling myself that the happiest I am is when I can do what I want.

My approach to a budget was and is “How much more than zero do I have?” I took out some loans for college, the rest my parents covered. I made increasingly more money over the four years, working in restaurants and bars. Not one dollar I made ever went into savings or towards my loans. I spent it all. It hasn’t changed, despite being a 40-year-old married mother of four. My husband came into the marriage with no debt other than mortgages. I still owed some on my student loans, plus I had credit card debt. I’d been to many countries, had wild and fun adventures, eaten many great meals and a lot of truly great cups of coffee I didn’t make myself. I had a 403B with some good money in it, the result of following a friend’s advice years ago about maxing it out. That’s the only good thing about money I’ve ever done. The rest I spend.

Turns out, I don’t really know what I want. Turns out, the limits are there whether I acknowledge them or not. Turns out, there might be happiness that comes with recognizing the self that I have and making choices that honor my own values—even if it means saying no to things I want. I’m starting to see that without saying no I give all my power away. Everyone has limits. Why don’t I know mine?

A deep anxiety has been my constant companion, causing medical issues for years long before I recognized that the constant monologue running in my head  had a name. The relentless assessment of situations–wondering how to be, how to be liked, what other people want or need, how to be a good wife, how to be a good mother, how to be a good girl who doesn’t make other people mad—it’s been eating me up from within. My deep self has been here all along, waiting to be noticed, sending me messages folded into illness and depression. Shame runs through me like fat marbling meat, judging myself for not being good enough, comparing my insides to other peoples’ outsides, wondering where my lack comes from. Throwing out the desire to be happy because I decided it wasn’t even a thing a person could be.

I’ve been committing to learning to pay attention to my deep self for the past seven years. It’s hard work and regularly frustrates me with how slow the progress is. On good days, I see and feel how far I’ve come. I’m not sure exactly what the end goal is but I think it’s to feel better. Whole within myself. And it doesn’t matter whether my teacher is my yoga instructor, my therapist, or a good friend. The message keeps coming down to the same thread to follow: what do I want? It embarrasses me that I don’t know.

Money has long been a source of shame. Shame due to debt. To being bad with money. To not knowing what I was doing. To having to admit to mistakes. To not paying attention—paying unnecessary fees, dipping into overdraft, living paycheck to paycheck. My shapeshifter ways have worn me down.  I struggle with appreciating what I have, the grass always very much greener somewhere else. I turn in circles, wanting to buy special treats for my kids that I wanted as a child and then feeling guilty for not living more simply, to not teaching gratitude. I’ve been so afraid of making the wrong choices that I haven’t made many choices at all. A choice implies saying yes to one thing, saying no to another. I’ve just said yes, yes and more yes. Even if the money runs out. Even if it feels bad as often as it feels good.

I thought my money problems were something to be dealt with separately. Attending a financial conference created by women for women brought things into alignment for me, showing me that I can work on getting my shit together financially and be working towards the same goals I’ve been reaching for in other areas of my life. Even though facing my finances scares me, it feels more concrete and achievable than fixing some of the other things in my life that need fixing right now. My marriage mostly. And my self. So I will keep taking hesitant steps forward, trying to remember to listen to this true voice inside of me, asking her “What do you need? What will make you feel good? What will give you ease? What will give you joy?” Let’s say yes to those things. And no to the rest. Is that possible?




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