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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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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.
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