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
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
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
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!
* * * * * *
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.