My two and a half year old daughter firmly planted herself on the floor. Her arms were glued at her sides, resisting any attempt I made at removing her shirt. “NO! I don’t want to take a bathie!” she cried, determined to win her cause. After struggling over the issue for a few more minutes, I relented. Meera had a bath yesterday – it wouldn’t hurt to skip a day.
There’s no doubt that a toddler relishes saying no. Mine has no qualms about it whatsover. It not only gets some of her needs met, but it’s clear she feels empowered with that “NO!” When you’re not nearly as big and strong as your parents, it feels good to have some areas of life where you have volition and power. Tonight, the bathie was Meera’s claimed dominion.
The clarity of NO
One thing is for sure – I’m more certain of how my daughter feels about something when she says no. It’s authentic, honest, and totally clear. Even at this tender age, I’m already beginning to wonder if the times she says yes are merely to appease or please, and not really what she wants to do. Early on we learn that saying no isn’t OK with other people.
Saying yes has a cost
Saying no has had a particularly bad rap in recent years, as more “positive thinking” or “it’s all good” attitudes have become increasingly popular. While these perspectives certainly have their value, the truth is that we can’t say yes to everything in life without some cost.
Saying yes to something means that we have to say no to something else. It’s simply not possible to say yes to lunch with a friend and have a job interview at the same time. Life is about making choices, and that necessitates that we are able to say no as comfortably as saying yes.
Saying no allows us to say yes
In fact, there is a healthy and powerful aspect to saying no. Saying no to what we don’t want allow us to joyfully and emphatically say yes to our true desires. When we become comfortable with saying no, we become clear about what we really want in our lives, rather than settling or feeling pressured to say yes to whatever comes our way.
The discomfort with No
The problem for most of us is getting comfortable with saying no. There are three main reasons why most of us don’t like to say no.
First and most commonly, we’re afraid we’ll hurt or disappoint someone else. After all, most of us don’t like to hear no from someone else when we’re asking for what we want. This is a symptom of taking too personally another’s needs and wants.
If we can allow our family, personal relationships, and coworkers to feel what they feel and want what they want without taking it as being something about us, then a no from a friend or lover is no biggie. From that no, we can then discover together what each can say yes to. That’s a healthier and ultimately more satisfying experience that the preemptive yes that may set up resentment or dissatisfaction for everyone.
The guilt factor
Sometimes we feel guilty saying no. Guilt is a powerful emotion that can motivate us to do many things we don’t feel good about. One time when I was plagued by guilt, my therapist offered a different perspective. Usually when we feel guilty, it’s because we have two or more things that we feel we should say yes to, and we have to make a choice. For example, you may have an Aunt come to town that you haven’t seen in years, but that same day you have to take your child to a birthday party he’s looked forward to for months. Often, we end up feeling guilty no matter what we choose to do.
Guilt is our mental reaction to our dilemma. My therapist suggested to drop into the space of the heart when I noticed guilt arising. This shifted me out of the guilt-reaction of the mind to the feeling place of the heart. When I did this, I experienced sadness rather than guilt – sadness that I wasn’t able to do both things. Sometimes we need to say no, even if we feel sad about it. Honoring that sadness helps us resolve our feelings about the decision, rather than continuing to needlessly beat ourselves up through guilt.
Missing an opportunity
The second reason why we avoid saying no is the worry that we’ll miss an opportunity. I may be invited to an event I’m not very interested in, but what if there’s someone there I’d like to meet? What if there’s a job opportunity that I’d miss? We decide to say yes out of fear of missing out, even when our schedules are overbooked and our interest is lacking.
Not only do we get stressed out with over-commitment from this tendency to avoid no, but again we fail to identify what we’d really like to say yes to. When we trust that plenty of opportunities will show up for us if we are clear about what we want, it’s easier to say no to these situations.
This leads to the third and most subtle reason that we tend to say yes when we want to say no – uncertainty of what we really want. “I shouldn’t turn that down,” we think… “maybe I’d like it after all”. Yet our gut is saying no, no, no. It’s not as easy for many of us to know our true desires. It takes inner exploration and honesty. But one way to discover what our heart truly wishes is to let the no’s come through. For some people, the yes arises when we’ve allowed ourselves to say no freely.
Many times in my life I’ve said yes when I really didn’t want to. It may have been agreeing to teach a workshop that I was too busy to commit to, spending time with someone I felt uncomfortable with, or complying with an unhealthy demand of a family member. Regardless of the situation, when I’ve said yes to something I really wanted to say no to, it results in the same feeling – a gnawing discomfort in my stomach, tension in my body, and an increased experience of stress. Each of us may have slightly different physiological responses, but we all probably know that feeling when we’ve agreed to something that doesn’t feel right.
Listen to the body
Indeed, your physical body tells you when to say no. I’ve noticed that there are two distinct aspects of physiological response to the need to say no. The most obvious is the gut-level reaction. This usually comes up when we have a more threatening or unhealthy situation we’re presented with and our body knows absolutely that we shouldn’t proceed.
The gut reaction ranges anywhere from choosing not to walk down a dark alley at night to turning down an invite to a party from an acquaintance who is known to have drug dealers and addicts at her soirees. The pit of the stomach may feel tense, heavy, or similar to the sensation of a drop-out ride at an amusement park, knowing that in a second, the car will free-fall for a hundred feet. These kind of bodily reactions to the need to say no are pretty easy to acknowledge and respond to.
The more subtle message
The part of the body that knows what we truly want, however, is the heart. The gut understands what’s best for our survival, but it’s in the depths of the heart that we can discern our hopes, our longings, and what’s right for each of us. This is a more subtle feeling that I experience as heaviness or at times a clenching in my heart. It alerts me to when I’m overdoing things, trying to impress someone rather than honoring my feelings, or motivated by guilt to agree to something. My heart lets me know that there’s something else I am better served doing than what is presented before me in that moment.
My heart tells me that saying NO allows me to say YES to what I truly want. Whenever I need to turn something down because of that gnawing in my heart, I can tune in and discover – what is it that I want to say yes to? Ahhhh, more time to myself. Time to write. A date night with my husband. Being more spontaneous. Or perhaps I want to say no to what my friend suggests we do together because I really want him or her to say yes to something else I had in mind. I would never fully claim what I truly want unless I gave myself the permission to say no.
No from the heart
Saying no can come from the heart. Because I really want to spend quality time with my friend, I say no to something I’m not comfortable with, so that we can find a yes that will be more fun or meaningful for the both of us. We can say no, not in reaction or in defense, but in honesty and openness, seeking what will better serve the connection between us.
By saying no, we honor the authenticity of the relationship. No one trusts a “yes man”: someone who says yes to everything just to appease, please, or get promoted, and doesn’t mean any of it. Our true friends are people we trust to tell us the truth, even if sometimes that is uncomfortable. Then we know the relationship is based on a real and respectful connection.
Saying “no” (and giving others permission to do so as well) can allow each person to simply “be”, rather than having to perform and do what we feel the other demands. Then each person can be themselves. By saying no from the heart, you deepen the authenticity in all your relationships.
Reclaiming our power
Just like my two and a half year old, we can reclaim our power through saying no. When we feel pressured to say yes all the time, we often feel impotent, weak; powerless to stand up for what we want. The simple and clear practice of saying no helps us reclaim our ability to set our boundaries. “No” helps us stand strong and centered within. When someone responds to and respects our “no”, it’s empowering.
There’s also the power of saying no in relationship to ourselves. We can say no to qualities we want to let go of, and to clutter we don’t need. It can be joyful and playful – “NO, I don’t need this! NO, I don’t want to overeat!” Then, for the no to remain effective, what do we want to say yes to instead of that? “YES, I am happy with having more space in my closet! YES, I feel full and satisfied!” NO can be utilized to clear out space in our lives and our inner selves, making room for what feels right.
Practice your NOs
It takes practice to become comfortable with saying no, and learning to saying it authentically and with love. You can do it in front of a mirror. How do you look when you are saying no? Are you looking certain or anxious? Does it feel honest? Can you be firm and kind in the energy of saying no?
You can also say no without using the word “no”. “I’d rather go for a hike with you”, “Can you pet the cat gently?”, and “How about we plan another day, as I’m not feeling up to it right now.” You can experiment with different ways of saying it and learning to enjoy saying no. When you become more comfortable with no, notice how it feels to say yes. You may discover that yes also feels more authentic, comfortable, clear, and joyful.
Learn from a toddler!
If you think you can’t ever feel free to say no, just imagine a toddler. Let your toddler-self come out. Shout out an emphatic and preposterous NO! It feels good! It’s fun when we allow ourselves to express that. We don’t have to become serious and heavy about saying no. Feel how it changes the situation. Then, smile to yourself and see what happens.
My daughter’s “no” was a way for her to feel empowered and respected, and a great opportunity for me to say NO to my need to control. “Do you want to skip a bathie tonight and read books in bed?” I said. “YES!” my daughter exclaimed. She chose a story and we happily curled up together under the covers.
© 2007, 2011 Constance L. Habash