We Couldn’t Say No

March 30th, 2021

You would think I could learn how to tell you goodbye.

Diamond and Bergman

I woke up this morning with a line in my head from “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” I had heard the song two days before. It’s not unusual for me to wake up with a lyric in my head, and I’ve learned to pay attention. I realized that I’ve got to learn how to say “goodbye,” that is, how to say no.

I had been to a small gathering the night before. People weren’t keeping distance. No one wore a mask. “What are these people thinking?” I wondered. Still, I didn’t say anything. It’s one thing to shy away from confronting a stranger, but this was my gathering — at my house!

I wish I had said something in the invitation, or had put up a sign, or worn a shirt with this “6 or 6” logo I came up with last March. We were outside, but still. Now I wonder, how many other people were wondering the same thing and were just too afraid to say something? Was nobody brave enough to speak up?

I’ve experienced this at several gatherings, which is why I’m writing this. Lucky for me, given my line of work, I rarely have to be in social settings, indoors or out. But to think only of myself would be tragically short-sighted. Eventually, the virus would come for me.

So a year into this pandemic, I wonder, am I missing something? I don’t think it’s that no one at the gathering believed in viruses. I know that at least one person there had had COVID: the person that put the event on with me!

If what is going on for me is what is going on for others, if we can’t keep good boundaries, then how will this pandemic ever end? With vaccines? And what about the next pandemic? Will we just sacrifice another few million people until another vaccine is developed, with all the suffering that entails? Are we destined to die out because we have no backbone, because we’re too nice?

Regardless of what you believe about the pandemic, we can’t leave it to others to set our boundaries for us. If disease doesn’t get us, tyrants will. We have to learn how to talk to each other, to say no. Why, then, can’t we do that? Why does this keep happening?

For me, basically saying “back off” feels rude, confrontational. It’s like saying, “I want out of this relationship.” This brings up not just very deep feelings, but my deepest feelings: wanting closeness yet fearing it at the same time.

So I feel violated. I feel angry. I feel incompetent, unsafe with myself. I lay in bed, my head spinning with self-blame. I want to crawl into a hole. I want to self-medicate, to distract myself. I bet this is what anyone who has experienced rape or any kind of violation feels.

So why can’t I stand up for myself? Why do so many of us, afraid of offending anyone, avoid confrontation? Why do we avoid conflict, even with friends and family? I think the answer is shame.

Shame is the desire for closeness, to not offend anyone because you want to be loved and don’t want to hurt their feelings either. I’ve learned that a certain degree of shame is normal and healthy. But toxic shame is not. Toxic shame comes from trauma, which practically everyone experiences because the “civilized” way we raise children is inherently traumatic.

When we withhold love from our children, making it conditional on how they behave, we are threatening them with death. That’s what losing your parent’s love feels like because in the wild, that’s what it means. Being abandoned means certain death.

The threat of annihilation is why shame is so painful, and it’s why we’re afraid to say no. That’s how toxic shame compels us to stay in line. It’s how Hitlers come to power. And it looks to me like, if things don’t change, it’s how we’re all going to die.

Consider, for example, how one author after another feels the need to point out that setting your COVID boundaries “doesn’t make you a bad person.” What hope can someone afraid of being bad — that is, someone like me — have of being safe?

As I lay in bed, struggling with these thoughts, it was like being stuck on a meditation cushion. What I finally managed to remember, and not easily, is that I need to forgive myself, to love myself, to say, “it’s OK.” I managed to think of simple tools I’ve learned in therapy, like resourcing, pendulating, and titration (from Somatic Experiencing).

Eventually, I’ll be able to say something like, “this is hard for me to say, but I really want to keep distance. I spend time with older people, and I really don’t want to give them COVID.” Or “I want to be with you, but I’m afraid about COVID.” Just something.

It seems so simple now, in hindsight. But I’m 52 and I’m still learning how to speak up for myself. To think my whole life has revolved around being unable to say no, around being afraid to do or even know what I want. Will my death revolve around that too?

If this is true for most of us, then we will learn how to do this, how to love ourselves so we can protect ourselves and our loved ones, or we will die: not from a virus or despot — those will just finish us off — but from the inertia of our traumatic civilization. If we don’t change the very foundation of “civil society,” then the global planetary extinction that COVID is just a sliver of aspect of — along with drug overdose, extreme weather, and extremism — will topple it for us. If we can’t bring up our true feelings, people will be bringing us flowers instead.

One thing I have learned, however, that you can’t choose love out of fear. Because that’s not a real choice. Wouldn’t you rather live in love? I know I would. What do you say YES to?

Your true feelings ARE your flowers. They are what we all need, not just to survive but to thrive. “No” and “yes” are a package deal.