I’ve been taking care of other people since I was seven years old. I’m the middle child of three, and growing up while my parents were separated and my mom working to make ends meet, I served as guardian for my siblings and their emotional needs. I prepared meals, cleaned the house, did laundry… You name it, I did it in order to accommodate those around me. At 10 years old, the nurturer in me gave birth to the giver. From food to clothes to toys, I gave unselfishly. At fourteen, I remember offering my first paycheck from Claire’s, to assist my mom with bills (she declined). But from that day forward, I found myself offering my money to anyone who expressed a financial hardship. At a very early age, I had eliminated the word “no” from my vocabulary.
Over the years, I became a human ATM. And by my own admission, I created this monster. I juggled bills while assisting others to pay theirs. I dipped into my emergency fund to rescue others only to have them develop amnesia when I asked for repayment. And when I think of the thousands of dollars I’ve shelled out over the years, most of which was never repaid, I’m certain I could’ve traveled the globe, at least once.
Recently, I was venting to a good friend who knows this situation all too well. This time I’d called him near tears after a family member contacted me with an “emergency” and needed to borrow cash fast. The alleged urgency of their situation left me with little time to make a careful decision, and to make matters worse, when I hesitated to say “yes,” they sent me on a guilt trip. I had reached my breaking point. I was emotionally exhausted, sad and irritated.
My friend sat in silence, listening to me rant and rave before finally speaking.
Him: You know what scares me? There’s no one to catch you if you fall. You’re always the safety net for everyone else. Who’s going to catch you?
Him: You’ve gotta stop. Just stop. Just say no. Trust me, they’ll find a way without you.
I frowned at him through the phone as if that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard.
Me: How can I just say no!? I can’t just say no!
Him: Yes, you can. “No” is a complete sentence. You don’t need to explain yourself after you say it. Besides, it’s YOUR money! Why do you need to explain anything to anyone about YOUR money!
I sat there in silence, blinking dumbfounded. His words scared the hell of out of me, but I knew he was right.
We teach people how to treat us. The saying really is true. The little girl who innocently started out as mom’s little helper had morphed into a people-pleasing “yes” woman. By never saying “no!”, and by constantly putting my own financial needs and wants on the back burner, I’d taught others that I would make sacrifices to ensure their happiness and well-being at whatever cost to my own. That no matter how big or small the jam, they could count on me to be their safety net.
It’s been hard to break the cycle. I’ve had to literally bite my tongue when I hear family or friends mention financial binds, and I still struggle with saying “no”, especially without attaching a lengthy excuse. But I am getting better and it feels really good. Recently, someone text me asking for $50. I text back saying that I didn’t have it to loan, sans an explanation. Seconds after I hit the send button, I felt guilty and was tempted to call them with a change of heart. But at that moment, I remembered my friend’s words: No is a complete sentence. No explanation needed.
By declining requests for cash, I’m able to stash more in my savings account to create my own financial safety net. And who knows, now I may be able to take that international vacation I’ve been dreaming about.