(k)NO(w) Thyself

To “no” me is to love me…


I applied to a Teacher Fellowship at the Department of Education.

I didn’t get it.

I lead with this not because I’m asking for your sympathy or condolences, but because a good friend recently helped me (re)realize that I’m awfully good at making myself appear invulnerable and (over)confident.


So this is a post dedicated to the great effort of holding my limitations up to the light.

Let’s begin with the word I most hate to hear:


Say it to me now.


Maybe just for good measure (if we’re friends like that) text it to me.


You probably feel better. I probably don’t. I don’t make it easy for folks to say no to me. I should probably take ownership of that, but I’m going to share a little ownership with my mother.

We do our best as parents. We often spend a tremendous amount of our time trying to course correct in our own children for some instance we perceive when our parents either allowed us to go off the rails (or kept us too firmly on the tracks). My parents did a spectacular job in all the ways that deeply matter….with a couple of minor exceptions. Perhaps most notably…my mother didn’t say “No” nearly enough.

Because my mother didn’t want my first word to be “no” (understandably for anyone with a 2 or 3 year old you’re trying not to throttle right now) instead of curbing my naughty behaviors with this two letter negative, she would give me other choices instead. “We can’t do that, Barbara, but we could do this or that….” Best of intentions. Worst of consequences.  I expect everyone (deities included) to extend me the same courtesy.


I am fully aware that I can make it very uncomfortable for people to stand in the way of the thing that I want or the thing I believe. I can remember vividly the significant moments in my life where people (or the universe) said “no” to me either implicitly or explicitly. Some of these moments came in pursuit of ambitions that I was not ready for or deserving of. Some of these moments came in intimate landscapes when men (whose lives and loves were entangled in my own) tried to keep me or let me go.

By far, the most successful and transformative “no’s” came from the women I love who are, indeed, “strong enough to be my man.” Annie, with her “stop trying to make me believe what you want me to believe!” Cara with her, “Oh, Barbara.” Megan with her straight up, “No” back.


And, in case you’re curious, Zach has no problem saying no to me…though his technique and timing have improved significantly over the past 13 years.


What does any of this have to do with vulnerability or confessions of imperfections?

Because by far, the hardest person it is for me to hear no from and say no to…is myself. Standing up to myself, the things that I want, desire, crave, obsess over….it’s exhausting. Truly. I’m constantly leaning back against myself.

“No”tice, for example, I can’t even give-up, things for Lent. I add things (like writing) instead.

My greatest fear is that without a constant cultivation of my soul, I will not be strong enough to resist my own darkest desires for power and praise.

I have always found myself drawn (and invited) to spaces of performance where the promise of accolades and adoration are cloying. The stage. The classroom. This blog.

See me. Marvel. Applaud.

But just because I’m good at something, doesn’t mean it’s good for me (or that I’m good for it). It will surprise many of you to know that my own deepest “Melancholy Hours” come immediately after moments of high visibility. I am never more self-conscious than after I’m behind the podium or have just hit “publish” on this blog. I feel anxious. Vulnerable. On the verge of tears. Convinced I have revealed myself for the self-aggrandizing narcissist I most fear myself to be.

So, no.

I’ve had to lean back against my desire to be in these spaces of high visibility for the supposed rewards they offer. I’m only able to be in them without regret if I share the stage with an ensemble of other people I can celebrate or issues I can advocate.

The truth is, over the last decade I have begun surrounding myself with people who are brave and bold enough to say no to me. And I have begun to respond differently to the moments when a no emerges. Instead of spaces of righteous indignation, these have become spaces of reflection.

It may be, in part, because I’ve changed the way I’m phrasing the question.

Instead of “Can I?” it has become “Should I?”

The “no” consequently feels…gentler?

What’s more, every time my community tells me no I breathe a little sigh of relief. If they can do it, so can I.


No, Barbara. No.

So, thank you Department of Education for this latest, “no.” Thank you, friends, for your knowing and your no-ing.

To “no” me is to love me.

Keep it up.

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