July 6th, 2020

Writing Lesson: Becoming Our Own Best Advocates

by Karen Debonis

The very phrase “self-advocacy” in the context of my writing gives me shivers of trepidation. Will you follow me on social media? Read my latest essay? Blurb my book? Buy my memoir (someday), and then please, oh please, write a review?

I’ve never been good at asking for help, for anything. When my husband and I were dating in college in Washington, D.C., he had a car and I didn’t. Once, I told him I took a very inconvenient bus ride somewhere.

“Why didn’t you tell me you needed a ride? he asked.

“I didn’t want to bother you,” I answered.

“Karen, it’s me, Michael,” he said, looking at me incredulously. “Just tell me where you need to go and I’ll take you.”

Why We Can’t Ask

I’m not alone in my reluctance to ask for help, and for me, it’s a manifestation of people-pleasing. You’ve probably heard of this character trait – of people who just can’t say NO. Trust me, it’s rarely that simple.

My experience with this complicated compulsion is that the internal discomfort of potentially displeasing someone—they’ll be annoyed, they’ll think I’m pushy/aggressive/stuck-up—dwarfs the potentially negative consequences of the action: I won’t get what I need.

In other words, what others think of me has mattered more than what I think of myself.

The Game-Changing Moment

At its worst, the negative consequences of what I call “toxic agreeableness” can be devastating, and I’m an unfortunate case-study. Twenty years ago, when our pediatrician dismissed my concerns about my young son’s deteriorating health, I wasn’t able to push back. I didn’t want to appear rude or disagreeable. I didn’t want to be overbearing. I didn’t want a reputation as that mother, the troublemaker. Or, in modern parlance, I didn’t want to be a “Karen.”

Because I hadn’t yet admitted to myself how deeply imbedded my need to please was and not advocating strongly enough for my son was too shameful to admit, I rationalized. Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe Matthew is just quirky. Maybe I’m wrong.

I wasn’t wrong. Turned out Matthew, eleven, had a brain tumor. And I had a head and heart full of guilt.

Because of that dark time, which was the basis of my memoir, it is now my life’s purpose to confront and overcome my people-pleasing. How else can I possibly make meaning of my story?

I’ve made progress. I can regularly ask the grocery store bagger to put the tomatoes on top. I told my writing critique group that two hours on Zoom is my limit. And recently, when my physical therapist took off her mask to give me instructions, I asked her nicely to keep it on.

Applying This Transformation to My Writing

I’ve applied my newfound assertiveness to help me face the “big asks” required of a wannabe published author. Here are the three rules that guide me:

I practice good literary citizenship.

When the recipient of my “ask” is another writer, I feel less awkward approaching them if I’ve already supported their work. I’ve made it a practice, when I read a memoir I love, to give the book a five-star review, promote it on social media, and track down the author to compliment them. In doing that, asking these authors for advance commitments to blurb my book has been almost painless.

I remember that others might welcome an opportunity to grant a favor.

My wise therapist once said that not asking for help deprives that person of an opportunity to show they care. You know how good it feels to do something nice for someone? Why not assume others will want to do that for you? Recently, I reconnected with some former neighbors when we lost a mutual friend to COVID-19. When I wrote a blog honoring our friend, I asked my neighbors to subscribe to my website to read it. I knew they’d be happy to comply, and they were.

I don’t give myself a choice.

A modicum of procrastination and hand-wringing is acceptable when I have a “big ask,” but I don’t allow myself to back down, and I don’t listen to my own excuses. Despite the discomfort, I ask.

I used this strategy when I was invited to be a guest blogger on Writers in the Storm. It was such an honor and my first thought was, “Who me?” But the big question sitting on my tongue was, “Do you pay?” It’s a question freelance writers insist is non-negotiable, but it was a tough hurdle.

I’m supposed to write for the sheer joy of it, right? Asking about payment felt like a business transaction instead of a writers-helping-writers collaboration. It felt yucky – the best way I can describe it, even as a writer. But I knew I’d never learn if I didn’t give it a shot. So, I asked.

The answer was no. And I didn’t care. The honor of my name appearing among so many experienced writers is priceless. Nobody at WITS, even the editors who make the rest of us look good, makes a dime. But the point is, I reached beyond my anxiety and posed the question. And I knew one of my first blogs would be to tell this story since it represents the personal growth my writing journey has inspired.

Speaking of growth, I’ve left you hanging about Matthew. At thirty-three, he’s made remarkable progress. Like mother, like son, he occasionally succumbs to people-pleasing, but he never settles for tomatoes at the bottom of the bag. In more ways than I can count, he’s my inspiration. 

Final Thoughts

Like any goal worth pursuing, my dream of publishing has forced me to push past my discomfort. The need to self-advocate is slowly letting the air out of my people-pleasing bubble.

This has been a fake-it-till-I-make-it endeavor. By acting like I value my self-worth as a writer, I’m gradually coming to believe it deep in my soul. And the more I believe it, the more my shivers of trepidation become flutters of anticipation.

Perhaps some day soon I will only feel anticipation when the “big ask” – will you buy my memoir – presents itself.

Are you good at "the big ask," or do you struggle like me? If you're "recovering," how did you get over it? How do you advocate for your writing? I'd love to hear what you have to say down in the comments section!

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Karen

Karen began writing twenty years ago after her eleven-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Those early pages are now a real-life medical mystery about a mother who must overcome her toxic agreeability if she's to save herself and her son. The manuscript is currently in submission for publication.

A happy empty-nester with her husband of thirty-seven years, Karen lives and writes in upstate New York. You can find out more about her journey at www.KarenDeBonis.com.

35 responses to “Writing Lesson: Becoming Our Own Best Advocates”

  1. lrtrovi says:

    This post has so many valuable gems in it. Thank you.

  2. LauraDrake says:

    Oh Karen, I know Jenny is pointing to me right now (even though I can't see her) - you could have written this for me. I too, am Karen. A recovering people-pleaser, and I NEVER ask for help. I was on crutches and fell on Jenny once, because I wouldn't ask for help. Sigh.

    But I try, every day. Stay strong, Sista!

    • I'm so glad you shared your story of falling, Laura, not that I'm happy you fell on poor Jenny, lol. What symbolism in "falling," right? We all fall, but as long as we get up and learn from our mistakes, we move forward. "Recovering but frequently relapsing" - that's how I describe my people-pleasing. I've come a loooong way, with miles yet to go!

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        The good thing is that I'm strong as an ox, and there was a pair of nurses two cars away who got us all situated. Plus, I think it was a moment for Laura to realize that sometimes asking is better than the alternative, and I got to be with my friend...so everybody won. 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Vanessa, and your concerns about my son. It was a difficult time, which makes his amazing recovery all the more sweet. It's so interesting how we (many of us at least) are conditioned to see help as a weakness. I hope you find the perfect "ask" so your loved ones can shower you with love!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I was totally thinking of you when I read this post, Laura! But you're getting better at it. Right??

  3. This is me with a big T. Asking for help feels like failure to me...like I must not be good enough, strong enough, whatever enough to run my life without needing someone to help. Thanks for reminding me that I'm robbing my loved ones of doing something nice for me. And thank you for the update on your son. I can't imagine how difficult that must have been for you and your family.

  4. Eldred Bird says:

    Oh boy, this one hit close to home. I wish I could say I was a 'recovering' people pleaser, but the truth is that monster still has it's teeth firmly planted in my flesh. I plan on taking your advice to heart and seeing if I can shake the beast off with the help of your rules.

    That being said, WITS is the one good thing to come out of my need to please others. The first time Jenny asked me to write a post for the blog I was more afraid of telling her no (not that Jenny would have taken "no" for an answer) than I was of the possible public failure. I guess a little people pleasing can be a good thing sometimes, just not all of the time.

    • It is a persistent monster, isn't it, Eldred--just like an addiction (but that's a whole other post for another day.) And agreed that it's not all bad. Some experts believe manipulation or selfishness is behind people-pleasing, but I think it's those of us with the biggest, softest hearts who succumb. I have lots to say on the topic; I should write a book. Oh wait - I did! Anyway, I'm glad you said yes to Jenny, because I've learned much from you. Jenny sure knows how to pick 'em.

      • Eldred Bird says:

        Thanks, Karen. I've learned a lot from everyone here, especially Jenny. She's taught me a lot about how to structure a blog post. She doesn't have to edit my work nearly as much as she used to!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Hahahahaha. You could have said no. I already told Karen in an email that I hear a "No" like that as a "Yes, later." I just ask again down the line. 🙂

  5. tracybrody says:

    I've slightly let go of the need to people please, especially knowing and accepting that people are all different and you'll never please everyone - particularly when it comes to artistic endeavors.

    Agree with giving others the opportunity to help, though it can still be hard to ask. And I try not to take it personally when they have to pass.

    Glad your son recovered.

    • I think that's key about never pleasing everyone - an Aha moment for me, too, Tracy. It kinda dawned on me that I don't like everything or everyone, so why would I expect that of others?

  6. Micky Wolf says:

    Wow, did this hit home! Thank you, Karen, for being so vulnerable. I, too, am on this journey of recovery. Every time I make a choice that honors who i am as a person without inflicting yucky stuff on other people, there's a sense of peace and joy. It was really hard in the beginning, less so now, although I still have a ways to go. As always, WITS provides a delightful dose of encouragement and insight. 🙂

    • Micky, I know what you mean about the peace and joy. When I asked my PT to keep her mask on, she thanked me for speaking up, and we talked about the challenges of COVID and masks, and it became such a non-issue, I thought - what have I been so afraid of?? Good luck on your continued journey! Today--tomatoes. Tomorrow--eggs! lol!

  7. ecellenb says:

    First, I am so happy that your son is doing well. Parent's intuition is frequently accurate and I wish the docs listened more closely.

    I think I love your therapist. "not asking for help deprives that person of an opportunity to show they care." How brilliant is that?! It has taken a lot of years for me to work on asking for help but I'm improving with practice.

    Thank you for this delightful post!

    • I'll tell my therapist he's got a fan, lol. And yes - lots and lots of practice, even talking to myself in the mirror. Keep up the good work! There was a study showing docs stopped listening to a patient after 20 SECONDS. Unbelievable, isn't it?

  8. I grit my teeth and ask - and the answer has been mostly 'no.'

    I will ask the right people some day; meanwhile, there are enough 'yes' answers to keep me asking. But it is very hard. And it takes an inordinate amount of time to craft the request to the right person.

    Some day it will all hang together, the mainstream trilogy will be finished, and the second and third books published. Right now I'm just grateful for the reviews I DO get when I can finally persuade someone to read.

    I know the story that fell in my lap twenty years ago (yes, I'm very slow) is still the best legacy I can leave - and hope that I have what it takes to finish, given the current state of the world!

    And after I skim the Washington Post and The New York Times and my favorite blogs, I get to work. Again. Because it isn't going to write itself.

    I just wish I were better - or fr luckier - at asking for help.

    • Sounds like a mix of discouragement and hope, Alicia. I wish I was seasoned enough to give you words of wisdom, but I'm in the trenches with you. All I can say is, I hear ya. Just recently, I had a few days when I thought I really just couldn't do this anymore. I started my memoir 20 years ago, too, (although I took about a 10-year hiatus) and sometimes I wish I was doing any BUT trying to get it published. If you feel your story is your legacy, though, like I do with mine, I think we use rule #3: we don't give ourselves a choice but to carry on. Best of luck!

      • It's forward - or quit. I have no desire to quit.

        I'm not discouraged - just recounting what I've tried so far, and the success ratio.

        I'm constantly poking at it, and operating within a very narrow energy window. So be it. I think it will be MUCH better to deal with when the trilogy is finished. Right now there's a lovely bunch of reviews, and a bunch of fans; but I can't market properly when, if they like the first book, the next two aren't available for purchase.

        I think the first is perfect as it is, but I also think the whole will be a whole different ball game.

        Sort of like stopping after part 1 of The Lord of the Rings. I'm glad he finished it.

        • Your persistence is admirable, Alicia. I'm sure your fans will someday be glad that you finished it, too!

          • It's funny, but it isn't really admirable when you have no choice. As long as I have breath and brain, it's getting finished. The story and characters came complete, vouchsafed (as I like to say) to me, the only person with the right background to write this particular saga.

            As with most quests, you keep to it until you win - or are permanently stopped by something bigger than yourself. There is no in between.

    • Linda, I'm from Western Pennsylvania--practically Ohio--and when I was in college in Washington, D.C., I remember people saying I had that midwest nice girl persona, I suppose lacking the edge of Eastcoasters? It's so interesting what you've said about the Southern woman persona. I think we've got some work to do in our culture to help girls (and boys) find a balance. It would save a lot of heartache. Thanks so much for sharing your insights.

  9. Oh, my, how I can relate! It has taken me a lifetime to learn that it is okay to say no, but I'm still working on asking for help! I'm not sure where you grew up, but if you told me somewhere in the American South, I would not be surprised. The need to be agreeable and please everyone is part of our DNA. I think Fanny Flag said it best in Fried Green Tomatoes regarding assertiveness training for Southern women being a contradiction in terms. As a mother, I have certainly been in the place of doubting my instincts and too often the medical professionals were not helpful. I am so glad your son is doing well. Despite what the medical profession might have you believe, a mother's intuition is very real and is usually right on target. Best wishes on your writing journey!

  10. Karen, I absolutely love this post. Such a fresh take on a familiar feeling so many of us have, and great specific suggestions. I'm sharing it in my newsletter--thanks!

  11. dholcomb1 says:

    It can be a matter of overcoming the way one was raised, or sometimes it's from being burned because one asked for help and it was denied. Or there's the tit-for-tat obligation, that if I ask X, X will expect something in-kind, but X's requests are never small.

    For me, it depends on what I need, I have no problem asking. But, there are times when I do have trouble.

    But, I've learned to say no, also. When you say no, remember it's one syllable. Don't give a reason. When you give a reason (justification), it can be turned on you as a form of guilt, and you may succumb to yes. Just say "no."

    denise

    • Yup - many factors go into how or why we ask or don't ask. I was raised by two people-pleasers, so I had much to unlearn. And it took me a long time to come to the realization that no justification is necessary for a "no." A good reminder for all of us, Denise- thank you!

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