The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. – Anna Quindlen

 - The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. – Anna Quindlen

I Was Just a Girl Who Couldn’t Say No


by Morgana

I should have said no to that calling. That much is obvious in retrospect, but at the time, saying no didn’t seem like an option.

How could it have? Every year since birth, I’ve heard someone from the pulpit give THAT talk. You know the one—where the guilt is laid thick if you happen to not totally, completely and superlatively (what’s the word now? Let’s say it all together) MAGNIFY your calling. Actually turning down an opportunity to serve the Lord is presented as abhorrent an act as robbing an orphan.

So when the Second Counselor extended to me the calling of CTR6 teacher, I accepted it, with serious reservations. I even jokingly questioned from which source the Bishop had received his inspiration. It was the third time in seven years that I would serve in Junior Primary, during which time I had also worked as a preschool teacher. I had three kids of my own at home to boot, including a special needs child and an active toddler. I was burned out.

I was also hiding a shameful little secret—well, shameful for a Striving-to-Be-Valiant Sister in Zion, anyway. I was coming to understand that I didn’t really like other people’s children. It was a slow and hard realization, but there it was.

But, I figured, the Lord wanted me in this calling at this time. There was something I could learn, or someone I could help by fulfilling it to the best of my ability. And fulfill it I did. I worked diligently on my lessons, created fun activities that invited the Spirit, and made cookies and a little card for each child’s birthday. I prayed that I would learn to love the kids and to enjoy teaching them. I even fasted toward that end a couple of times.

I know it sounds ridiculous. They were just kids! For a mere two hours on Sunday! They were all cute and sweet, with the average amount of wiggles and giggles. Yes, one of them had Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) just like my son. But I should know how to handle that, right? Right??? (Hint: although it would seem like a natural fit, do not call parents who are dealing with a special needs child to be in charge of another child with those same needs. We are exhausted, and need the break.) In truth, my class overwhelmed me, and in spite of the prayers, every new Sunday would fill me with increasing dread.

And then one Sunday, it happened. I was in the library, requesting copies for my lesson. The white-haired librarian asked me how many I wanted, and I froze up. I could not answer. The librarian appeared a little alarmed. I began to hyperventilate, and then my husband walked in. He put an arm around my shoulder, and I began to sob.

It was before the second bell, so the library was full, as were the halls. People were staring. I was beyond mortified. Here I was, trying so hard to make this calling work, yet having a mental breakdown in front of my fellow ward members. To appear as anything less than competent, cheerful, and willing to serve is not the Mormon way.

The Primary President approached me. We had a long talk and she asked if I would like to be released from my calling. I said yes, but not without a lot of guilt. I could not figure out why the Lord would call me to something that would end in what felt like abject failure and humiliation.

I began to ponder if the calling had been inspired at all. Something the Primary President said didn’t sit well with me: I had been called because I had known experience with kids and with PDD. It had been an intellectual decision, not a spiritual one. The Lord had had nothing to do with it. And with that realization, came another one: I could have said no.

Saying “no” in the Mormon culture is extremely difficult. Lessons, talks, special firesides all point to the wonderful blessings we’ll receive if we do ALL that the Lord requires of us. Hell, the whole temple experience is a lesson in never saying no. We covenant with God (with angels as witnesses!) to give all of ourselves, even our very lives, to the building up of the Kingdom. Now that I’m out of that culture, it seems so bizarre—so obviously cult-like and disturbing. But when you’re in it, the pressure is very real. It’s no wonder that “no” is a word that’s rarely heard.

But the reality is sometimes “no” is the best answer. We are never, ever taught that. It’s particularly hard for Mormon women, who have been conditioned to believe their work is “the errand of angels.” I’ve pinpointed three responses we Sisters make when the answer should be “no.”

1) We say “yes.” Then we take on the calling, stress out, fast and pray for strength, but end up exhausted and even sick. (See above story…)

2) We say “yes.” Then we grumble and complain at the audacity of so-and-so to even ask that of us—because, you know, once asked we can’t possibly refuse. That would be un-Christ like.

3) We actually say “no.” Wait, that’s not true. We say, “I’m so, so sorry, but I just can’t.” Then we launch into a fifteen minute explanation of how we’ll be in flight to Timbuktu at the time to help our mother deliver her 14th baby, or at the hospital donating our kidneys; but if no one else can step in, then yes, please call us and we’ll email the exquisitely cute RS birthday invitations from the airport, or create the origami representation of each temple from our hospital bed.

There are many problems with this inability to draw proper boundaries and learn to take care of ourselves. One problem is undue judgment of those who actually *gasp* say no. Another problem is undue judgment of those who say yes, but really and truly should have said no. I’ve been privy to the conversations: the criticisms that are heaped on women who appear to be performing less than their best can be frightful and cutting. I think this was another reason for my panic attack in the library, AND my subsequent shame.

Another problem, and this is widespread, is that if we are taught to never say no and to constantly give, give, give of ourselves, this bleeds over into other aspects of our lives.

On my mission, I had a district leader who was wild and rebellious. But he was charming and funny, too. I wanted him to approve of me, regardless of how much he flouted the rules and confused me by his utter lack of conviction. We became friends, and I never reprimanded or guilt-tripped him, something he came to confuse with acceptance of his behavior.

One day, he approached me about going to the beach with him—a topless beach. He would arrange a split for me so that I’d be companions for the day with a known rebellious sister missionary. I’m not sure this is what the Church has in mind when it asks us to follow our leaders.

I look back on the occasion and shake my head at my former prudish self, but at the time I was horrified. But I didn’t say no. I rarely said no. That was not my M.O. I said yes, even when I was deeply uncomfortable with the proposition, and then internally panicked.

As it so happened, the mission president found out about the plan and put the kibosh on it. I considered it a blessing from God, but what it represented was a lost opportunity for me to learn to stand my ground.

I still have difficulty with that, but I’m learning. I’m learning to respect other people’s boundaries as well, another thing rarely taught in our weekly lessons. And by rarely I mean never, which brings up an interesting observation: something that only struck me as obvious recently. When you get a group of ex-Mormons together, with many experimenting with newfound freedoms and most raised neither to say no nor to take no for an answer, it becomes a tinderbox waiting to catch fire. So fellow ex-Mormons, go easy on each other. Respect delineated boundaries! And remember: It’s okay to say no!

  • Thai girl. says:

    This one resonated with me quite a bit. I found myself agreeing with everything that was said in each paragraph. My husband and I realized just how much we did things throughout our life to please others. It leads to a stagnation of your own personal development, and I must say that I have found SOO much freedom in being able to say NO! Thank you for your thoughts in this article.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:25 pm
  • Thoughts says:

    I am Mormon, but find most of your story to be quite accurate. My father, a Bishop, told me that most callings are not out of inspiration but desperation. I am/was a dominate white personality, which makes it hard for me to say no too. But I have also been taken advantage of by “inspirational callings.” I have eight kids that I deal with all week, the last place I want to be is in the nursery. As I have learned to stand up for myself I have told Bishop’s why I don’t want or can’t do certain callings. The reactions differ between Bishops. If I have a stubborn one, my doctor will call and just tell him that I need to be treated as guest in the ward with no callings or extra things like talks, firesides, young men/women. I have learned with standing up for myself and saying no that people haven’t treated me any different.
    But it has taken years for this to happen. I still go to church and enjoy my “guest” calling of just showing up to be great. Though my situation has worked out for me, I have seen all too much the things and situations and feelings you have shared and totally get it, and I don’t look down upon anyone’s decision to stop going to church. There are a lot of expectations put on female members, and a lot that struggle. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    July 27, 2013 at 1:28 pm
    • Morgana says:

      You’re welcome, and thanks for sharing yours! I’m glad that you have worked out a way to approach this. :) Thanks for reading!

      July 27, 2013 at 1:43 pm
    • Morgana says:

      I just want to point out that this is not the reason why I left the Church. Learning to say no is a happy corollary, however.

      August 28, 2013 at 11:32 am
  • Jill Searle says:

    I say no to just about everything now. :o) Still making up for lost time.

    July 27, 2013 at 3:51 pm
    • LatinaT says:

      haha, that is my mother. She is so happy to be able to say no, that she say’s it all the time now.

      August 5, 2013 at 9:49 am
  • Paula says:

    I was in a major car accident when I was 6 1/2 months pregnant and had a toddler. About two months after the baby was born, we moved into a new house in a new ward, which was an ordeal in and of itself. The bishop had the nerve to come over one night within a week of our moving in and tell us he had heard all about us (same stake as old ward) and he wanted to call me to be the VT coordinator. I was at the end of my rope with all I was dealing with and I looked him right in the eye and told him that I figured from being in presidencies before that some callings were inspired and others were a matter of needing a body and just trying to find someone who could handle the job and was willing to do it. I told him if he sincerely told me this was the former, I would agree to pray about it but would not accept until God had shared that inspiration with me. If it was the latter, I would not even consider it and the answer was no. He honestly told me it was the latter and we talked a little more and then he left. It felt so good to just be honest about what I felt and what I could and could not do. Being VT coordinator at that point in my life would have been a horrible burden. I’ve never accepted a calling I didn’t want to do since then.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:19 pm
    • Morgana says:

      Good for you! Yeah, I think once you reach that point where you set your own lines of demarcation, it feels so liberating that you don’t look back.

      July 28, 2013 at 1:10 pm
  • Roger says:

    Sounds like you’re codependent like myself. I hope you’re getting better at setting boundaries. It seems like codependency is so common in the LDS church. I know you did not ask for my advice, but try getting into a Codependents Anonymous meeting.

    July 28, 2013 at 12:41 pm
    • Morgana says:

      Roger, I am much better about this now. I’ve become a much better advocate for myself and my needs. Untangling myself from the teachings of the LDS Church and my upbringing has been hard, but worthwhile.

      July 28, 2013 at 1:05 pm
  • Shalie says:

    I was called to be the ctr4 teacher just before we left the church, and it was part of my exit out. I do not do well with children, they drive me crazy (and I was a little hurt that I had been taken out of YW to be put into primary), but the Bishop specifically said that he prayed about it and knew that this calling is what the Lord wanted for me and that those kids needed me as their teacher. Well, a few weeks later a friend of mine at church told me that they had asked him to be the ctr4 teacher just before they asked me to be, but he turned it down. WHAT? How is that the Lord saying that I was “meant” for that calling if I was second choice? Yeah, made me realize that “revelation” is a bunch of crap. I also discovered that I was taken out of YW because I was too “colorful” in my lessons.

    July 31, 2013 at 7:48 am
  • deliadaisy says:

    I am suffering this in my own life as well. I hem around giving no for an answer with all sorts of explanations thinking its more “polite” to explain myself for saying no than to just say ” No i cant at this time in my life, or right now, or today or ever..” The thing is that when you say NO, people stare and ask well why on earth not? and a long list of other annoying questions that are really none of their business too. I am struggling with this in my family right now. I have a young adult child in my home who is owning it with wanton disregard for everyone else in it. Its impossible to get her dads support in saying no to her and having expectations of her. I get questioned and marginalized for having expectations that are healthy productive and progressive for my beautiful daughter and its a whole being effort to put my foot down and demand the respect for myself and set the boundaries for her. Im so guilty. Im so tired.

    August 1, 2013 at 1:16 pm
  • Rachel says:

    Thank you for this post. It’s great to hear your story.

    Several years ago, I was called to be the primary chorister in a large Utah ward. The calling didn’t fit me or my circumstances at all, but I felt compelled to say yes.

    It was so out of character for me to ask for help or ask to be released. I must have been a mess because after a year, I talked to the primary president and asked if they could at least find another person to teach either junior or senior primary–I couldn’t handle doing two different lessons for that many people each week. The bishopric member over the primary said no, that I could handle it. The primary president knew I wasn’t doing well, though, and released me. Bless her for her insight.

    That experience opened my eyes to misalignments between what the church says (e.g., “This calling is directly from God. He knows what you need, and you need this.” “As a priesthood holder, I was inspired to call you to this task.”) and reality (e.g., Callings are a management decision. The bishopric may not be aware of or able to sense the challenges happening in your life).

    August 14, 2013 at 9:41 am
  • Chelsea says:

    A few days after my 17th birthday, I was to speak about something I didn’t have a shadow of a testimony of. I was a popular speaker for Sacrament meetings because I’m a naturally good public speaker, and they assumed it was my conviction in my faith that made me so great on the stand. So there I was, up at the stand, babbling about something that made me angry, but I daren’t speak my mind because I was someone to look up to (literally and figuratively) and emotional/spiritual abuse was abounds in my household. I deviate from the path just one inch and I’m pulled out of school for a week because I’m grounded.
    So what happens? I get halfway through my talk, and black out from sheer stress. I fainted, right there at the podium. I was a wreck the rest of the day. No one knew why. I never told anyone. And I’m still ashamed that I didn’t say no.

    August 28, 2013 at 11:46 am
  • pinkhedgehog says:

    I think it’s fabulous to give up an evening of my time to help someone else, when I can. It’s a different story altogether when it becomes a soul sucking burden and a real hardship on your family and your mental health. I’ve run a few auctions for my kids’ elementary school, and it was a huge deal. I was hardly at home for about a month, and it was pretty intense for my family. I did it because I wanted to, and it was short lived instead of being never ending. It’s even more disturbing when you are told that God wants you there and needs you, which to me means that God doesn’t care that I’m going to lose my mind. I’m glad to finally realize that it’s not inspired, I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. The freedom is so sweet!

    August 28, 2013 at 12:03 pm