I Stopped Being a Pushover, Which Made My Life Awful
I always try to accommodate others, see problems from their perspective and offer reasons (or excuses?) for their behavior. This trait is known to psychologists as being highly agreeable, which sounds like a good thing—but being too agreeable is a big problem.
Over the summer of 2018, I had to rent a series of Airbnb’s over several months to live in Los Angeles. I hate LA now, partially because of how Airbnbs made my life so unstable. The worst time was when as I was switching locations, and I asked my future host over a messaging app about seeing the new room. She mentioned that someone was currently living there, so it was not available. I asked if I could see it when the person was not there, and suddenly she called me.
When I picked up, she immediately began to scream at me. She called me rude and demanded “who taught me to be this way” for eight minutes, nonstop. Throughout her rant, I tried to smooth things over by apologizing, but I was terrified. Eventually, she ran out of things to say and hung up.
I felt numb. What could I do? If I canceled the reservation, I would have no place to live for a while. What’s worse, according to Airbnb policy, I’d have to abide by her refund rules, which meant I might only receive 50% of the hundreds of dollars I was supposed to pay her. If I didn’t cancel, I’d live in the house of someone who had antagonized me over what I felt was a trivial matter, and live in fear.
When I confessed the situation to my boss the next day, he was shocked and scornful that I had apologized to the host over the call. It was so hard to explain to him the fear of confrontation and the desire to smooth things over.
The Big Five personality traits describe 5 spectrums for measuring personality, including openness to experience, extraversion, and agreeableness. Like with the Myers-Briggs personality test, it’s common to hear about the strengths of people with each personality trait, but it’s harder to admit that our defining characteristics have strong disadvantages. For example, someone who is too open to new experiences may be reckless or easily led into dangerous situations.
The major disadvantage of being agreeable is not finding it hard to say no, it is wanting to say yes to things I don’t want to do. Even when the Airbnb host was yelling at me, I found it hard to bring myself to yell back. In everyday life, I’d accept people skipping me in line, or waiting at the doctor’s for an hour and a half. What pushed me to change was when the people who cared for me urged me to stand up for myself.
I began to want to challenge line-skippers and to ask receptionists when the doctor would arrive, which seemed like a victory. Initially, I’d still have the instinct not to make trouble. Each confrontation came from long internal debate, and I’d feel stressed fighting my natural inhibitions. Eventually, I overcame these feelings, but I realized that it made me feel worse, not better.
Being less agreeable means looking to challenge people at every instance. When people approach a line I’m standing in, I suspect that they might be trying to skip. When I’m right, we end up pushing wills against each other and fighting, and I walk away stressed and in disbelief at the nerve of this person. Whereas my agreeable self would have accepted being skipped, which causes some short-term stress, arguing with a stranger would cause longer-term stress. After all, disagreeable individuals have more negativity in their life.
Yes, being less agreeable has helped me secure advantages, but it’s also led me to create stressful situations for myself. If I had done what my boss wanted me to do and yelled at the Airbnb host, what advantage would I have gained? When I called Airbnb, they insisted that they could only refund me any money that the host consented to give me. Eventually, over six hours of calls with Airbnb customer service, I was able to obtain a near complete refund.
Maybe apologizing to the host had soothed her anger a little, or maybe she would have given me a refund either way. But constantly looking at people as if they are antagonists is a painful way to live. Maybe I’ll find a happy medium, or maybe I won’t, but now I know that “standing up for myself” isn’t always as good as it’s made out to be.
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