I’ve been in the Just-Trying-to-Say-No club most of my life. I know all too well the challenges of mustering a “no” from these lips when my pulse is rising, my chest contracting, and I’m breaking a light sweat, all telling me that death awaits on the other side of “no.” The death of likeability, wantability, love, approval.
I will not be loved, and I will not survive.
Or so it feels in every cell.
For many of us, we missed an important experience in early life – that of saying “no” and being met responsively with kindness and respect. Our boundaries were crossed, and there was no one there to tell us, “Your boundaries are good. I love your ‘no.’ Please tell me ‘no’ anytime.” Rather, we were met with condescension, judgment, or the appearance that another would sufferbecause of us and our “no,” rather than because of their own wounding that needed tending from them.
For those of you who missed the essential experience of your “no” being honored, you’re not out of luck. Your hearts and brains are malleable. You can change. You can do this. You can – and get to – reclaim the felt experience of your right to “no.”
Step 1 – Learn to Notice Your “No”
Before you can act on your “no,” you need to know that it’s there in the first place. Easier said than done. So many of us are used to ignoring, overriding, dismissing the impulses that have us tighten our stomachs, constrict our throats, and swallow the words we are so sure will be a disappointment to another. So often we dismiss these impulses unconsciously as simply “the way life is” rather than as something integrous to be paused for and listened to.
The first step to cultivating your “no” is to pay attention to your body. When you’re in mid-conversation, you may not (yet) be able to speak to your discomfort, but you can notice it in the changes that occur in your breath, your throat, your belly, or perhaps your palms and even the bottoms of your feet. Make a practice of putting your attention on your body in the midst of a difficult conversation. These responses are important signals that something’s amiss. Learning to listen – and to trust – these signals again is the first step to healing the wound of the missing “no.”
Step 2 – Make a Practice of Standing in the Fire
It’ s a hell of a lot of pressure to think that you can turn decades of conditioning on a dime, courageously shouting your “no” every time it emerges in daily conversation, when everything in you thinks you’re going to die as a result.
Gentle here. Rather than whip yourself into shape (you’ve likely got enough of that inner whipping gong on), I encourage you to start privately, on your own. Set aside a few minutesa day to feel your sovereignty, your right to be here on earth, your right to take up space, your right to say “no.”
I recommend sitting in meditation for a few minutes, and then saying aloud:
My yes and my no
Breathe. You can’t go slow enough in here.
Try holding a hand out in front of you, as though to say to another, “STOP.” Let every cell of your body register your capacity here to signal to another what is good for you. See the other in your mind’s eye responding, stopping, perhaps bowing in reverence before you. Your “no” meets their needs for honesty, courage, and truth.
Notice what happens in your body when you see this person responding. Let yourself take in this possibility that your revealing your “no” is in harmony with the turning of the earth, the rising of the tides, the ebb and flow of the wind, the coming and going of your breath. Let yourself notice that all of life is served by your truth-telling.
Breathe. This is what it means to come home to yourself.
Step 3 – Hold Your Young One
We struggle to say “no” for good reason. There is an integrity to your silence, to your “maybe” and to your “yes” when you really want to say “no.” That integrity lies, so often, in our early life experiences around attempting to assert a boundary that was not met.
So often, our young ones learned to fear the loss of love, connection, and belonging if they were honest. They came to believe that honesty was, in fact, at odds with their survival.
Mercy to them. Mercy to us.
Right alongside cultivating a practice of standing in the fire of “no” is going back for our young ones.
Likewise in meditation, see her, the young scared one, the alone one, the trembling silently one, the angry one who didn’t have words, or the one who had words to which no one would listen.
Tend to her. Scoop her up in your adult arms, wrap her tightly in a blanket and wear her on your back, cradle her, sing to her, or if she wants, simply hold her young hand.
Let her know:
I see you.
I’m here with you.
Presence. Attunement. Kindness.
This is so often what the young one craved.
Offer her it. She is not crazy for having difficulty in saying “no.” Offer her compassion for the fear that freezes her and the anger that shakes her inside.
Notice what happens in her young body when you see and slow down for her.
It’s not too late.
It’s never too late.
Saying “No” is Saying “Yes” to Life
Recognizing the signs of “no” in our bodies, and eventually speaking them (without harshing on ourselves the times that you don’t), are how we say “yes” to ourselves and “yes” to life.
This is how we serve not just ourselves, but our families, communities, an entire nation and world of “no”s that have been silenced. Bringing all of life back into alignment, listening and responding to the wisdom that pulses just under the surface.
“No” comes with time. Maybe it emerges first with held breath, maybe eventually with a stutter, and maybe someday with a groundswell of HELL NO that rises up through your gut and out through your lips.
What matters is that you listen.
After every “failed” moment of not asserting yourself, after every confusing swirl of yes-versus-no that torments your being, after every time you tried, but just didn’t know how. What matters is that you come back to yourself, and offer yourself the compassionate witnessing you deserve.
This is how we learn to live mercifully – toward ourselves first and foremost. Daring to listen. Daring to reclaim our right to be here, alive and vibrant beings, with a wild river of truth coursing through our bones.