An uncomfortably sincere confession, but what the hell.

Years ago, one of my students took me completely aback when she claimed, “People don’t change until it’s too painful not to.” I thought about that for a long time. Is it true? Are we really so reluctant to disturb the status quo, even if it’s unhappy? Are we ever capable of something more?

Without even noticing it, I began to believe that certain roles and circumstances (work, home, family, you fill in the blank) were unchangeable, fixed, out of my control. I fell into patterns of behavior, ruts really, that had become comfortable, even when I knew they were wrong.

Then, just recently, I woke up. I’m not sure what snapped inside me. Maybe a whole bunch of things coalesced into a great realization: If you want something, you have to ask for it.

Asking for things has turned my life around in a matter of weeks.

Part of me groans to see this epiphany put into words, imagining you, Dear Reader, thinking either, “What an incredibly obvious, emotionally stunted person” or, “Someone has been spending a little too much time with O, The Oprah Magazine.” But bear with me for a second.

Imagine what would happen if you uttered the unspeakable truths in your life, or were just honest for once about the things you usually dissemble. (Maybe you need to ask for some space, or respect, or love, or to be heard, or just to try a different way of interacting.) Would the world end? Would the ground open and swallow you up? Would time stop? Would you pass out? Would you make someone (gasp!) uneasy? Or, just maybe, would you feel incredibly relieved? Would you even get some of what you want?

Things will change, sure. They’ll have to, because you’ve said what people have depended on you—what you’ve depended on yourself—to keep pushed down inside. Change is terrifying, and you might experience rejection. But being brave gets easier with practice. You’ll change, if only because it’s become too painful not to.

Most of my life has been good behavior punctuated with occasional rewards when someone happens to notice. It worked well for the first few decades. It’s how I first found a profession, a relationship, a city to call my own. It never occurred to me that it was a mostly passive way of being, or that it would eventually fail me.

Everyone wants to be acknowledged, to have someone say, “I see you.” The most surprising part about asking for things is that a lot of the time, people say yes.

23 responses to “An uncomfortably sincere confession, but what the hell.”

  1. PB says:

    I needed this.

  2. PB says:

    Yikes, that was also perhaps an uncomfortable yet sincere confession.

  3. Dave says:

    I want an example, and how it worked out for you.

  4. lane says:

    great thought… i want to be with PB and just be a cheerleader, but I’m also with Dave… drilling down.

    it’s is a great thought, BTW…


  5. A White Bear says:

    I sometimes feel like I like to think I’m in control of what I do, but I look back on my life and all the times when I was acting self-destructively were when there were enormous environmental depressors. Like, of course I just wanted to play video games and drink beer–I was making $12,000 in New York and being treated like shit by my coworkers. I don’t want to say that I am entirely a product of my environment, but I also do need to forgive myself sometimes for not always being the most perfect everything when life is hard. Right now I’m receiving rejection letters just about every day, with no hope of employment for next year in sight, and although I’m not upset when I read them–I get way too many to cry for every one–the cumulative effect is that I just don’t feel great. And I choose not to think about that until someone asks me how I am and suddenly I realize that I’m fucking awful.

  6. FPS says:

    I wanted an example, too, because I thought: am I doing this? And was not certain.

  7. lane says:

    i totally identified with it, and with the “break through moment” too…

    but here we run up against a boundary… sure i admire ABW and her outrageously honest posts. but my commenting and on-life policy is linked up with my profession and life in general, i put shiz out there as ‘lane’,,, usually.

    so while i appreciate the thought, and would like an example, i know we’re in “over sharing” territory.


  8. lane says:

    and i don’t think the behavior you describe is anyway dysfunctional or sad or pathetic. it’s simply what people do when there are young. and none of us are “young”, for better and worse, anymore.

  9. Rachel says:

    Good points, Lane. I am not sure how to be more specific about this.

    Just: think about something you need that you are not getting.

    Now think about the magnitude of admitting that fact to yourself, of allowing yourself to want something, and then going after it

    (without the world coming to an abrupt, immediate end).

    I wonder whether it’s extremely gendered, this wondering if you’re allowed to want stuff. It often seems that women are rewarded more than men are for passivity. But only for so long.

  10. LP says:

    Yay Rachel! I like the last line: “…a lot of the time, people say yes.” I think we do sometimes underestimate what people are willing to give. I’m happy for you.

    AWB: Hang in there, girl. Academics is such a wrenching, ugly business. But that cliche of never knowing what’s around the corner is still true. It is it is it is it is.

  11. lane says:

    yeah, it’s funny, i can think of an example though… those people that belong to the family church LOVE to talk about it… and without even thinking talk about it ALL the time…

    and it came down to telling a sibling SHUT THE F**K UP OR… DEAL HONESTLY WHAT I SAY IN RESPONSE… NO ELEPHANTS IN MESO AMERICA!!!!!

    and while it’s really hard for him to shut up, he’s figuring it out, and the other sibling has really shut up.

    so yeah, it’s hard. “be nice” “oh but it’s my faith… you have to respect my faith”… NO I DON”T! I do not, and never will and i think you’re silly for believing that!

    and then it opens up this totally unknown space with our unbelieving father and skeptical, slightly jaded, slightly resentful mother…

    weird… and it makes me think,,, what if i could have done this when i was 18? but then,,, all the research that it took to stand up to it all… 10 years. talk about longing for the internet in 1987…

  12. Ivy says:

    AWB, have you ever thought of applying to universities overseas? I know that in Australia and New Zealand that if you are working as an academic they make your immigration easier. It might not be what you want in the long run, but it could be good experience for a couple of years. The universities in the southern hemisphere don’t tend to be rated as highly as northern hemisphere ones, but the University of Melbourne is, in Australia, and there are a LOT of options there, and the Universities of Auckland, Otago and Canterbury in NZ are pretty good. (But perhaps avoid Canterbury for the time being unless you enjoy earthquakes.) The academic year is just about to start, but it might still be worth some thought.

  13. J-Man says:

    Rachel, I think this is most definitely a gender issue; I find it interesting that the comments asking for specific examples are all by men. My expectation has always been that if I ask for something, I will specifically be denied that very thing which I have been asked for. I have found, lately, that the opposite tends to be true, however in many cases, just asking doesn’t always net positive results. This can be anything from work/financial compensation to friendship/relationship issues to customer service situations.

  14. lane says:

    that’s very interesting…

  15. J-Man says:

    er….should read, “……the very thing which I have asked for”.

  16. Rachel says:

    Well…sometimes they say no.

  17. A White Bear says:

    IME, they always, always say no. I’ve never really been in a relationship, work or personal, in which I could ask for things and get them. Well, Smearcase sent me a book he’d borrowed that I asked for. Does that count? Part of it is that I never ask for anything, and the other part is that when you never ask for anything, when you do it suddenly comes off as really desperate and crazy, even if it’s something small.

  18. A White Bear says:

    Ivy, thanks for the leads! I have looked abroad and applied for some jobs in China and Australia, but I didn’t see any ads for people in my field in New Zealand. I’ll look!

  19. J-Man says:

    As I re-read my comment, I realize that it sounds like in my experience they mostly say no, which is not what I meant to imply. What I have found is that asking for what you want/need is a skill that one can get better at, and in doing so will net better results. So yes, sometimes they say no, but quite often they say yes, as Rachel has pointed out. I think people can hear our expectations in the asking, even if we don’t verbalize them directly.

  20. PB says:

    I need to feel more than just a cheerleader . . .

    I am learning in my newish position to set realistic timeframes as to what I can accomplish. For the first several months I just said yes to everything and accepted any deadline thrown out even if it meant working like a crazy person to get it done. For external deadlines that might still be important, but I am thinking more about whether they are arbitrary and when I can define a more reasonable pace. This is kind of silly, I am sure there are more meaningful applications for relationships and life. But even in small ways I can see my balance and energy shifting by taking more control. I think it is a girl thing, a new in something thing and a lack of confidence thing in various combinations. I am also getting bolder as I get older.

    And no is easier to hear and negotiate if you have asked the question.

  21. J-Man says:

    And also, there’s the whole “ask vs. demand” thing, which is very much a gender issue.

  22. PB says:

    For a blog that is supposed to be gasping, 21 . . . 22 comments is as vibrant as when Lane and I fought over Bowie.

    Just saying.

  23. LJT says:

    and more substantial… i really liked how Stella started this mid life issue thing… and i know she seemed pretty bummed sometimes… and i hope she’s not. and i like how AWB is so raw…

    and i liked this post too. posing these questions and hashing them out, with greater or lesser degrees of sharing, not sharing, is really good.

    There was actually a times article on this, and i was gonna biscuit it… but then i went on the overshareing bender and got embarrassed… again.

    long live… blah blah blah.