A Need to “No” ~
We regularly encounter things in our lives that seem really hard to do. Rising to a challenge that seems insurmountable, coping with an unwanted diagnosis, committing to important lifestyle changes, and saying goodbye to someone we care about. Even showing up for something you really want to do but you are afraid of failing at.
With so many critical things in life to be challenged by it seems hard to believe that saying a simple two-letter word can be one of the hardest. It’s just a word, and it’s a really short one. It only takes a second to say, so why is saying “no” so hard?
Why no “no”? ~
We avoid saying “no” for a lot of reasons, some of which we aren’t even consciously aware of.
For some of us, simply saying the word to someone who wants a “yes” goes against the part of us that wants desperately to be liked. We tell ourselves it is good to say “yes” and that if we say “no,” we are somehow not being “nice” enough.
We might avoid “no” because we are afraid to take a stand that others don’t like. We don’t want to disappoint. We don’t like how it feels inside of us to witness other people’s reactions to our “no.” We may simply not want to “no.” Like a child, we may want to eat the cake and still have it for later. We want to say “yes,” have that be the right thing to do, and have all potential conflict that’s evoked by doing what others don’t want us to do to go away.
We may not even know we need to say “no.” We may not give ourselves time or space to find out what we truly want to do. If we had time to feel into the rightness of various possible responses, most of us would say “no” a lot more of the time. We talk ourselves into believing the eternal “yes” is the only, or best, response to everything. This is especially the case for women and girls, simply because of how most of us were taught was the best or only way to be.
Outcomes of “No” ~
One of the worst things about doing the “no” is that we get to feel it, experience our reactions and the reactions of others, and come face to face with what it means. We have to deal with the risks and consequences of “no.” Sometimes those consequences are very hard to cope with.
What could happen? Someone might cry. Someone might get angry. Someone might judge you. Someone might walk away. They might accuse you of not caring. They might go so far as to imply that there is something wrong with you for not accommodating them, and even act like you are some kind of criminal. All of this is their “stuff.” All you did was say “no.”
Hard places to say “no” include when you live with or are in a relationship with someone who has a tendency towards violence and anger. You know when you say “no,” they experience it as you “crossing” them and they feel challenged to reassert their “authority” in retaliation, perhaps through threats or bullying.
Another hard place is when someone you care about has designated you as the “one.” The only one. The best one. To do whatever it is that they need done. They say things like “You are the only one who cares,” “You are the only one I can depend on,” and “You are the only one who can do it right.”
It’s also really hard to say “no” when it goes against a grain. A social norm, a group norm. An obvious example here is someone who is transgender or gay who comes “out.” In doing so, they are saying “no” to pretending to be other than they are. Speaking of going against the grain, what about going against a neighborhood of uniform green lawns where the norm is heavy spraying of Roundup to get rid of all those pesky dandelions? In saying “no” to contributing to a toxic food and water supply, you end up with a very visible display of weeds, unwanted strains of grasses all over your front yard, and a neighborhood full of judgment.
Parents know all about difficult and unwanted “no”s. Better to cave into the demands of whining children than have to listen to it one more minute? Better to give them the high-sugar snacks they insist on having because all their friends eat them? Perhaps easier in the moment. Yet, dealing with adult children who expect their every need to be met makes for a lifelong parenting challenge that you may regret. Teach them to cope with “no” early on, and you help them cope with future disappointments; trust me, they will come.
Being the “No” ~
I think I say “no” a lot, and I suspect a lot of people in my life may think so, too. I learned to, of necessity, and I had to practice to develop my skills. For many years, the word “no” was simply not in my vocabulary. I still sometimes say “yes” when I want to say “no,” say “no” indirectly by being unavailable to respond, or say “no” but feel horribly guilty.
I have also learned to be the “no.” To act the “no,” without saying anything. When I attend yoga classes taught by other instructors, they may tell us to do something that isn’t right for me or isn’t something I want to do. So I don’t do it, unlike many participants. Some instructors make it hard to say “no”; their style is very directive, and they don’t offer any choices. Others make it really easy and make a pronouncement at the beginning of class: “If something doesn’t work for you, don’t do it.” In the absence of such an out, we have to give ourselves permission to say “no.” In doing so, we risk being seen as non-compliant, uncooperative, or difficult (try saying “no” to a doctor’s recommendation and see how that goes!). But you do it anyway. Why? Consequences. There are always consequences for those “yes”s that should have been “no”s. Some big. If we remember them, they help motivate us to monitor the rightness of the choices that we make today.
Getting Good at “No” ~
The truth is we are all really good at “no,” and we say it more than we realize. When we get up in the morning, drag ourselves into the kitchen, inhale a strong cup of coffee and let it stimulate a frenzy of activity, we just said “no.” We said “no” to a moment of reflection before starting our day. We said “no” to giving ourselves the space to set a positive intention for the day. We said “no” to breathing deeply and transitioning slowly into activity. We said “no” to prayer and meditation. It just wasn’t a conscious “no,” and it probably wasn’t a good “no” to say.
Every “yes” to one thing is a “no” to another. Even when we choose a passive approach to making tough decisions by avoiding them, we are choosing both a “yes” and a “no.” When we do something, we are saying “yes” to that action and what it means. When we don’t do something, we are saying “no” to that action and what it means. When we stay in an unhappy relationship or job, we are saying “yes” to experiencing conflict and hardship, and we are saying “no” to moving on with our lives to something better. There may come a time when the staying becomes intolerable, and the “no” comes out loud and angry because it is so overdue.
Knowing the “No’ ~
What do these “no”s really mean? Never what is at face value, really. Beyond the overt “no,” we are saying other “no”s. Deeper “no”s. When we say “no” to someone who asks for too much, we are also saying “no” to feeling taken advantage of. When we say “no” to doing something someone else wants us to do in favor of doing something we want to do, we are saying “no” to being a victim and to blaming others for our choices. When we avoid confrontation by saying “yes,” we are saying “no” to feeling the conflict and to addressing it. We are saying “no” to standing up for ourselves.
“No” Matters ~
These less conscious “no”s matter quite a bit. Every time we say “no” to doing what is truly best for us, we are in a way abandoning, dismissing, or even rejecting ourselves. We may be accustomed to overriding our awareness of this truth, but it doesn’t go away or stop being real because we ignore it. Somewhere in there, we do feel it. Make a habit of saying “no” to getting your own needs met and it will eventually catch up with you in the form of stress-related illness or emotional disequilibrium.
Way to “No”! ~
Sometimes we need cheerleaders enthusiastically rooting for us to help us survive hard changes and take difficult stands. Perhaps this will help. Imagine you have such a cheering squad, replete with little skirts and pom poms if you wish, and imagine them hopping up and down saying “You No, Girl” (or guy, of course). Or perhaps they could do a little gymnastic kick as they say “Go for the No!”. Hey, why not, if it helps?
Backups are always helpful. You may find you need to repeat yourself and have backup cheerleaders, such as friends or family who are on your side (don’t ask the ones that you need to say “no” to!). Notice how you feel once you have survived the “no.” After the initial guilt, remorse, or feeling like you are a really bad person has passed, you might feel great, like how you felt as a kid when someone else stood up for you.
Let’s Do This ~
Listen to Nancy; Just Say “No.” (You remember Nancy Reagan’s solution to drug addiction? Wouldn’t it be nice if it was that easy!) If you can’t do that, at least buy yourself some time with “let me think about it.” Try to resist the temptation to avoid possible confrontation. Step up to the “no” plate and take a swing. Then practice. Say it a lot and enjoy it. Notice how, over time, people stop expecting you to always say “yes.”
Now that feels good.