One of my clients sat down for her weekly therapy session and burst into tears. "What's happened?" I asked, fearing a terrible tragedy. She could barely speak, she was so choked up. When she finally spoke I realised her overwhelming emotion was anger rather than sadness. "I cannot believe it! I have agreed to go on holiday with my partner's friends for the third year running. Last year I was so miserable I almost left the holiday, and him, for good! What on earth can I do?"
Does this sound familiar? With freezing temperatures and flurries of snow still dominating, this is the time of year that many of us will be gazing at beautiful brochures and planning our sunny summer escapes. But how many of us rashly agree to an arrangement that is top of someone else's agenda, and may be our own personal Holiday from Hell? This is a very common complaint from my clients (and friends) as we seem to find ourselves, yet again, spending our precious free time in places we don't want to be in, with people we don't want to be with.
In my book, The Curse of Lovely: How to break free from the demands of others and learn to say No (Piatkus 7 March), I describe how the lives of many people (men as well as women) are blighted by putting the needs and desires of others before their own. This is often a habit of thinking and behaviour that stems from childhood when we learnt how to please others and avoid conflict in order to feel safe and loved. But it is never too late to change, and my book suggests how you can begin to ask for what you want, and still be loveable.
So if you are about to agree to anything from a day trip with a long-lost friend or relative to a fortnight with other people's children in a theme park that you know, deep down, you do not really want to do, then here is my action plan to help you break your Curse of Lovely (Holiday from Hell section).
- Buy time when the plan is first suggested. Avoid being swept along by the enthusiasm of a loved one and never agree to anything on the spot. Say you need time to check your diary/work commitments /family, whatever is relevant for you. State a time when you will get back to them with a decision, and stick to this.
- On your own, or with a trusted friend, think carefully and clearly about the pros and cons of the proposal. Try and be really honest with yourself. Last summer, a friend and I realised that we kept allowing ourselves to be lured into our teenage fantasy of cool people sharing wine and laughter in a sunlit bohemian French house, only to find the reality far too stressful to be relaxing and enjoyable.
- Can you think of a compromise that might work for both/all of you? My client facing her shared holiday nightmare finally suggested that they tour around the area on their own and stay with the group for a few nights. She was amazed that her partner agreed happily. This might take a bit of negotiation (for example: take it in turns to choose the holiday), but is preferable to the simmering resentment you will almost definitely experience if you say nothing and endure in silence.
- Think through what you want to say and practise it in front of a mirror, or with a friend. This is really important, as most Lovelies have little experience of saying the magic word "No". It usually holds an almost phobic fear, and can come out with far too much force. Practise what I call The Gracious No. Thank them for their kind offer, but say you can't (this time). If possible, offer a future alternative, but not if you don't want to. Aim to keep the tone of your voice calm, strong and clear, and be careful that your body language is not giving off the opposite message (hence the mirror rehearsal). A common lovely mistake is to smile apologetically at the end of the speech, opening the way to be guilt-tripped and talked-around. Mean what you say.
Remember, you have the right to say no and the right to say what you want to do. Happy holidays!