Saying ‘No’ does not make you a selfish person. You are free to release yourself from the unreasonable expectations of others.
“Here you go,” she said to me, as she handed me two large bags of old clothing. Kellie was a classmate and friend of mine. We were in the second year of our busy doctoral program and at the moment we were between classes, standing in the hallway outside the cafeteria on campus.
“What is this?” I asked, trying to balance the bags of clothing with my own heavy load of books and gear.
“I lost a lot of weight last year, and these clothes no longer fit. I can’t really afford new clothes right now, so I figured you could just alter them for me.” Hmm. Take home message – she couldn’t afford to pay me for my time, either, time I had very little of as a busy graduate student. Had she asked, I would have told her that I don’t do alterations for other people. Did I do them for her? Yes, but I regretted it. The amount of time, effort, and physical energy it takes is a concept the non-sewer fails to comprehend. She offered to cook a meal for me in exchange. I declined, saying I needed the time to catch up on the hours of missed studying. Of course, it was passive-aggressive. I know that now. But I’m older, wiser, and much less of a people-pleaser.
Fast forward a few years. “Hey, Melanie, if I’m willing to pay for the fabric, can you make me this dress?” Nicole asked me in the foyer after the church service ended.
This was the girl who had once said, “I would never pay more than $30 for a dress. I can just go to Walmart.” Umm, what? “I have so many amazing ideas for outfits I want,” she continued that Sunday morning. “We need to get together.” Again – my time, expertise, and artistry had absolutely no monetary value. She was supposedly doing me the favor by paying for materials, and I had nothing better to do than spend all of my free time bringing HER creative visions to life. I suggested she take a beginning sewing class. She decided that was for the best because, “I need to make sure I get credit for my ideas. Not that I’m saying you’d steal them,” she said quickly, upon seeing my raised eyebrows. Nice save, Nicole, the delicate creative genius.
Any of these scenarios sound familiar? Everyone who sews has gone through this many times: the assumption that you are expected to be everyone else’s free alterations specialist, personal couturier, and professional decorator. Add to that: business partner. “We should start a fashion business! With your sewing skills and my profoundly creative and brilliant vision, we could start a company!” Here’s the question – if I’m the one who has all the skill of execution, what do I need you for? I cannot begin too express how often I allowed these conversations to go on, when I should have politely and quickly shut them down, simply because I was trying to be nice. Yeah…I got over that a long time ago.
The truth of the matter is that we are all busy people. We are all overtired. I have chronic health issues – that’s my thing. But we all have something – kids, significant others, jobs, endless errands, housework – the list goes on and on. We all have to make a sincere and concerted effort to carve out time to do whatever it is that nourishes our soul and recharges us. But there’s something about hobbies like sewing. I seriously doubt that if hiking was my thing, someone would show up on my doorstep with their dogs saying, “If I provide the leashes, can you just take my dogs? You’re already walking anyway?” Actually, I bet it’s happened.
I’m not responsible for the expectations and assumptions of other people, and my creative pursuit does not require any justification in the form of ‘using-it-for-others-selflessly-to-prove-I’m-not-a-selfish-primadonna.’ There is no such thing as selfish or unselfish sewing. It’s just sewing. These days when someone says to me, “Can you make me one?” I simply say as kindly as possible, “Sorry, I can’t. But thank you so much for asking.” That’s it. Underneath the request is a compliment, even if the execution is clumsy at best. Not to mention, twenty years of chronic illness have taught me to say, “No,” even at times when I would gladly say yes. NO is a powerful word. It will have consequences. But here’s the reality – the people to whom I am closest, who already know that I would gladly alter their pants or make a custom Star Wars bowling shirt, don’t ask these things of me. Truly, they don’t have to, because I’m already actively involved in their sewing needs.
It’s one thing for a total stranger to ask me where I got my pants, then ask for a business card when I say, “I made them.” Mildly irritating, yet highly complimentary. After all, they must think what I do is very professional looking, so I get it. And even if I’m not interested in doing this as a business sideline, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t put a monetary value on my time, even if it’s only mental. If I don’t see my time, skills, and expertise and valuable, then no one else will treat them with value. How may hours have I put in over the years, between planning, prepping, shopping, researching, learning, and reading, in addition to the execution itself? Hundred upon hundreds upon hundreds. And yes, the many old movies, television shows, vintage magazines I’ve indulged in have added to my knowledge and expertise, the same way watching Spanish language television and listening to Spanish music improved my language skills when I was learning to speak Spanish. When someone says, “Why would I pay that for a dress if I could just buy one at Walmart for $24?” I suggest Walmart because, even if I did throw a shingle with my name on it above my sewing room door and opened for business, you couldn’t afford me. My clientele is exclusive. My time is highly valuable, and I’m already in demand. But Forever 21 gets their shipments every Thursday afternoon. Perhaps you should check it out.
It is not easy to get to this point where I am able to be that snarky and La-dee-dah about it. As women, we have traditionally been conditioned to be nice, smile pretty, be generous and kind, and make time in our lives to overachieve and win the approval of others. Eff that. I don’t have time be that nice and delightful 24/7. The very thought drains the precious life force energy out of my body, like a big pair of selfish hands wringing me out like a sponge. When I have the time, energy, physical strength to sew, I’m making beautiful dresses, blouses, or bucket list projects that make my heart sing. And in between, I’m going to make and alter things for people I love, because ‘acts of service’ is a love language of mine, all the more reason not to let myself be taken advantage of in this regard. Saying NO is self-care. The relationships which matter most will be able to withstand the disappointment. I can’t be selfless with those who need it most unless I’m selfish in situations where it matters. No, I can’t make you a Victorian ball gown for your upcoming event. I’m busy making myself another retro 50s style dress to wear while I sit around the house. See you next Sunday!
By the way, I heard you were an auto mechanic. I have this vintage 1948 Ford truck sitting around:
If I’m willing to buy some paint, can you make it look like this?
Thanks, I’ll need it by Tuesday.