Ever had trouble saying goodbye, ending a conversation, leaving, or getting people out of your house? Have you ever noticed that at some point during a conversation or visit that you’re ready for it to end but that you can’t seem to make it end? As if you’re…a prisoner of the conversation? That has happened to me. When it has happened, I feel it in my body: I feel a fuzziness in my head, a pressure behind my eyes, and a restlessness in my whole body (forearms, knees and jaw) that builds until I feel like I could jump out of my skin! I feel voiceless. I find myself wondering if the other person has Any Idea that I’ve shut off or that it’s time to go. I’ll start to get resentful of the exploitation of my time. I’ll secretly wish that something would happen to eject me from the prison-I-mean-conversation I’m in. And I’ll think, over and over, why can’t I just say Gotta Go, and jump away? But, I’m frozen. And I’m so worked up inside that I start to have doubts about my ability to politely disengage from the conversation.
It’s been written that people who grow up in oppressive families suffer from having difficulty ending conversations (Janet Woititz), so you’re not alone if you relate to this! The way it played out for me, I grew up so highly attuned to what others wanted and needed from me emotionally (my daily goal throughout my childhood was to not be abandoned again (which of course I thought I had power over) and thatdictated my entire relationship to my family), that I didn’t have any experience prioritizing my own needs, wants, and desires. I was Good. And Good meant not having desires. I had no experiencing voicing my wants. Like, to a shocking degree. That was, in a nutshell, basic survivor living. Just getting by–not exactly preparation for adulthood.
When I say to a shocking degree, I mean that I had trouble asking for my most basic needs to be met–like going to the bathroom. I’ll share a really uncomfortable memory with you, from when I was seven years old. My dad, stepmom and I were traveling in the car, going car camping in Minnesota. We’d done a lot of driving. At one point I was sitting in the well behind the driver’s seat, playing with a doll. I’m sure I liked the feeling of being hidden and cozy in that spot seemingly carved out just for my kid body. (God knows why I wasn’t in my seat with a seat-belt on, right?). Well, I had to pee. And I remember feeling frozen, that fuzzy-headed paralyzed feeling of being in another world and unable to speak up. Maybe we had stopped recently at a Rest Stop, I don’t know. Maybe I was just feeling so divorced from them, so retreated into my imagination that I was lost. I don’t know. I recall feeling that I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have the courage to speak up. So, I peed in the back of the car, in the well behind the driver’s seat. Immediately, I felt like I had a secret to cover up, which was not an unfamiliar feeling. (I did feel a brief physical relief at least, the physical torture of holding my urge was gone.) But, what now? I pretended nothing had happened and moved to the actual seat of the back seat, and hoped that the puddle of pee would just…Go Away using that seemingly powerful magical thinking we’re all prone to.
Would you believe that it never came up? I find it hard to believe that my dad or stepmom didn’t notice the wet spot. You know? But, maybe they didn’t. Maybe they were that stoned. Or maybe they decided not to say anything, to save my embarrassment. Or maybe they actually couldn’t figure out what had happened (it was certainly weird enough), and we’re simply puzzled.
I think you can imagine how hard it was to learn to assert myself if my starting point was difficulty in getting such basic, physical needs met! (I was also A Bed Wetter till about age nine or ten, when I decided to finally stop and taught myself to fall asleep with my legs crossed and a promise to myself not to pee.)
Worst Case Scenario Worksheet
For some people the key to getting over the fear of ending a conversation or asking for what you want is to ask the question, What’s the worst thing that could happen once I ask? There’s an active way to approach this: create a two-columned list on a piece of paper (your worksheet).
First, think of a recent situation in which you got paralyzed about saying ‘bye or getting people to leave your house. If you had said, “I’ve gotta go,” and then left, what would have been the worst thing that could have happened? In my case of needing a rest stop to go to the bathroom, the worst thing to have happened could have been:
Being told to just hold it
Being yelled at because we stopped already
Being yelled at for drinking too much
The burden of being a burden
The feeling of ruining a good time
The discomfort of drawing attention to myself
Getting them mad at me
Write down your list. Don’t just do it in your head because it’s a totally different experience to write this down. Trust me.
Look over your list. Make a second column (or second list) and write down Why The Worst Seems So Bad, and write down why each reason you’ve listed would be so bad. Like with my last reason, “Getting them mad at me,” the reason why that’s so bad, for me, is because if they had gotten mad at me about stopping for a bathroom, then they might stop loving me and leave me again (as love is almost always conditional in dysfunctional families, or at best, the messages about love are very conflicting).
Take a few minutes to write that second column. (Really. Do it!) You can use this method of digging deep and thinking on paper for exploding all different kinds of emotional blocks. The idea is that once you’re aware of the deep-seated fear that’s in the driver’s seat, you become free of it and free to take action. By doing this you’re already taking action and cutting through the paralysis.
An Escape Plan or Goodbye Script
For others, having a Plan or a Script is the key to getting over the fear of ending conversations, visits, and asking for what you want. I like this method because it provides a template for going through the motions a bit robotically–until it begins to eventually feel natural and we can begin to adopt our own styles and variations to it.
Before shooing people out of your space, first be sure to accept and embrace your desire to want your space (and time) back to yourself. Know that the desire for it is Right and OK and Allowed. Know that deeply, believe it completely. Then, commit to a course of action that will send very clear signals, and don’t back off from it. (Not backing off is key! We tend to pull back when we see that people are not liking what we’re doing. But, don’t pull back, as ultimately pulling back will undermind your efforts and discredit you.)
Asserting boundaries is not comfortable, but doing it and continuing to will deliver you from a just surviving kind of life to a life where you’re thriving and in the driver’s seat, whether other people like it or not.
Remember that just as toddlers respond to structure and clear, consistent messages, adult humans do, too–we all appreciate nonverbal signals that help us transition to the next thing (i.e., your in-laws will very likely fall into the grove–and leave–once you begin the process.) Just be sure to commit to it and be clear and keep your verbal and nonverbal communication in harmony with one another (the opposite of how we were raised, where verbal and nonverbal communication rarely matched up).
Nice To See You, Time to Go
Here are the basic steps:
Say Where You’re Headed
Will There Be a Next Time?
In Action, here’s how it might look:
(Summarize Visit) “It sounds like you are really enjoying your new car – great to hear that life is humming along.”
(Thank Them) “I’m so glad you stopped by.” Or, “It was cool of you to visit.” “It’s been great to see you.”
(Get Up) Stand up or clap your hands onto your thighs like you’re about to stand, or begin to clean up.
(Say Where You’re Headed) “I need to get dinner started.” Or, “It’s time for me to go run some errands.” Or, “I need to get some sleep. Can I pack up any left-overs for you?” Or just, “I’m going to go.”
You may also want to talk about where they’re going, “How do you plan on getting home?”
(Will There Be a Next Time?) “I’d love to get together next weekend.” Or, “There’s a festival next month, I’ll send you an email. It would be fun to do that together.”
(Get Moving) Walk almost out of the room, then wait, or go out of the room, towards door
For ending conversations, it’s especially important that body language and your words match. Expect to go back and forth a few times as you close, but try to be clearly going in the closing-it-up direction or it will get back on the rails and you’ll need to begin ending it again.
Promise to Connect Again*
(Warm Fuzzy) “So glad we ran into each other,” Or, “Good to meet you.” Or, “Nice to chat with you.” (Some people swear by, “Okay, well great!” as a tried and true wrap-up phrase. I may try that.)
(Wrap Up) “Hey, now I know something about diesel fuel,” Or, “Thanks for the tip about where to buy a camera.” Or, “Great to hear that you’re liking your new job.”
(See Ya) “Talk to you soon,” Or, “Hey maybe we’ll run into each other again,” Or, “Say hi to your uncle for me,” Or, “I’ll give you a call next week.” (Or exchange business cards, which is a kind of promise to stay connected.)
*Only promise to connect if you actually want to and plan to. Be honest. If you don’t want to reconnect, just keep it simple, say, “Take care.”
Don’t wait for the other person to get tired or give you permission to end the conversation.
And, also, for those creepy, or seemingly obligatory, conversations that go on and on, you can try to slowly shorten your responses (assuming that you’re doing any of the talking) incrementally. So, if they say, “What are you doing this weekend?” You could say, “I plan on relaxing,” which leaves them very little to work with. And to mirror their language, so that if they say, “Well, you have a good rest of your afternoon,” you say, “You, too,” rather than something that invites comment or another start-up of the conversation. You might feel like a cold-hearted meanie. You’re not.
In actuality, some of these steps might repeat or overlap before you’re actually out the door (i.e., the long goodbye.) For now it’s just imporant to your growth to get the ball rolling. Perfect isn’t in the vocabulary of self-growth. You can do perfect next lifetime or in your last life, depending on what you believe or the age of your soul . You’re going to be tempted to lie or exaggerate your reason for leaving (“I have to…do my taxes, I have to…help my grandmother…lie, lie, lie) and it’s essential that you don’t lie–because the truth is that ANY reason you have for ending the conversation or leaving, including no reason at all, is 100% valid. This helps us accept ourselves–the truth is normal, valid, and acceptable. Everyone knows that visits eventually end, right?
Again, this kind of thing is the difference between living in survival mode and truly thriving in our lives. Ending conversations and visits are our boundaries to establish and to manage.
Be sure to tune in to what your body is telling you about when a visit, or conversation, is over. Are your arms tingly? Is there pressure behind your eyes? Are you holding your breath? Listen to that, and initiate saying Goodbye soon after the sensations arise. Don’t make excuses like it’s too soon, or too selfish. Follow up with an email if you feel it’s necessary to keep the exchange going. You can say, “I’d love to talk more, but I have to run.” Be polite, and clear, but don’t take on their feelings (what you imagine their feelings are).
Be kind to yourself.