When I was in college, I dated a guy who went to college in Ithaca, New York. The town is filled with gorges and bridges that run over rivers. One afternoon as we were walking along with a picnic basket and passed over a bridge, he declared he wanted to strip down to his undies and jump in a river. Other swimmers had made the 10-foot jump and were laughing and splashing, but I just … couldn’t. I am not afraid of heights and I know how to swim. He kept calling at me to jump in and offering to hold my hand and jump with me, but my mind kept circling around my fears: “I’m going to sink straight to bottom. Hit a rock. And break my neck. I will be paralyzed. All because someone wanted me to jump off a bridge to go swimming.” I stood at the edge of the bridge for a whole damn hour, even starting to cry, terrified to jump in.
Eventually we walked on and had our picnic. He ate psychedelic mushrooms while I sat and watched, because that’s another thing I’m afraid to do. I felt like … well, I felt like a pussy. And worse, I felt like I wasn’t being a fun girlfriend.I’m not an adrenaline freak: I enjoy doing laid-back things like watching films, browsing bookstores, visiting art exhibits, and trying new foods. (Maybe it sounds strange, but I get my adrenaline from blogging.) I haven’t usually dated wild and crazy people who do stunts on the wings of propeller planes or commune with bears in the Alaskan wild. But everyone has different comfort levels and things that make their stomach feel queasy and I am well aware of all the things that make me feel uncomfortable because when it comes to saying “no” and meaning it, I have just about no backbone. “No” doesn’t mean “no” with me. It means “no, until you nag me or guilt trip me enough until I relent and finally do it.” What’s weird is that I’m a person who usually knows, quite strongly, what she wants and doesn’t want. I don’t actually have a problem saying “yes” or “no,” just a problem holding firm when I do say it.
Specifically, I have trouble sticking to my guns with guys. I don’t think the men in my life have exploited this, exactly, but they haven’t always respected it. I get afraid of not being the “fun girlfriend,” or the “fun friend,” and cave. Then, I think, when they see I’m a pushover, they push again some other time. Growing up, my boyfriends and guy friends pressured me into drinking and smoking pot a lot more often than I wanted to. I pierced my tongue on a random school night because my older brother was encouraging me. (For the record, I wanted the piercing, but not quite so spontaneously.) And when I was a newspaper reporter, I had a male friend badger me to do something that I thought was unethical and he just would not let up when I said no. He pushed and pushed and pushed until finally I blew up at him. (I didn’t do what he wanted, ultimately, and I’m glad I didn’t.) I’m not saying that women can’t be pushy, too, but in my experience, women haven’t pushed as hard as the men do.
What I also don’t understand is that I’m actually a pretty bold person. I used to wear cat ears and a plastic pickle around my neck in high school. I’ve talked about my sex life on Ryan Seacrest’s radio show. I’ve even — ZOMG! — interviewed Tim Gunn and Diablo Cody, two celebrities I’d sooner die than look like a dork in front of. When it comes to a lot of things, I have a big pair of cojones. I think I’m just really afraid of disappointing people and afraid of not being a people-pleaser.
This is all on my mind right now because I’m supposed to fly on an airplane tomorrow and visit my boyfriend, whose been on a business trip for most of the past month. I think you could call my fear of flying a genuine phobia — not so much about the plane crashing, but prolonged claustrophobia. It’s the last thing in the world I want to do — seriously, I would cuddle a boa constrictor — and I’m consumed with asking myself, “Why did I say I’d go? Why did I buy tickets? Why didn’t I just say no when I never wanted to do this in the first place?” I’m so anxiety-addled I don’t care about losing the money I spent on the tickets. I don’t care about not seeing California for the first time. All I care about is disappointing someone I deeply love, being a wet blanket and not being the “fun girlfriend.”
I hope I grow into having a backbone as I age. I hope I can own my “no” and hold onto it. I hope I can say “no” when I really want to say “no,” not say “OK, fine, if it will make you unhappy if I don’t.” But right now I’m struggling with how much fun I don’t want to be.
Image via iStockphoto