This message is for those of you who struggle with a two-letter word:
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.
I find that so many of my clients missed an essential early life experience – that of saying “no” and staying in connection with their adult caretakers. Often, there was no one listening to the beautiful needs behind their “no,” no one to cheer them on, to smile and lean in with warm curiosity rather than derision. Instead, they were taught that they were responsible for the feelings of the adults around them, including their disappointment at my young clients not wanting what they wanted, and that “no” was a “bad” or “disrespectful” thing to say. “No” thus became an act of daring, of seemingly risking connection with those they loved most and/or depended on for they survival.
Thankfully, those of us who struggle with "no" are not out of luck. Our hearts and brains are malleable. We can change. It’s not too late to reclaim the felt experience of our right to “no.”
Below, I share three steps that I have discovered on my own healing journey, and have found super helpful to my coaching clients in reclaiming the dignity and glowing aliveness of their “no.”
Step 1 – Learn to Notice & Observe 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 accustomed 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 – Love Up the “Yes” Behind Your “No”
It’ s a heck of a lot of pressure to believe 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 going on), I encourage you to start privately, on your own, with the following practice.
Nonviolent Communication teaches us to listen to the needs we’re saying “yes” to when we outwardly say “no.” It invites us to notice the stories that “saying ‘no” is selfish, bad, shameful,” etc, and to turn our attention toward the beautiful needs that “no” is trying to meet.
I recommend a daily meditation practice of connecting with the needs that “no” bestows, and then saying (and loving) them aloud:
I love space
I love sovereignty
I love choice
I love the aliveness of my “yes” and my “no”
Breathe. You can’t go slow enough in here.
You might hold 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 your needs. See the other in your mind’s eye responding, stopping, perhaps bowing in reverence, acknowledging your needs. In your mind’s eye, see their acknowledgment as a form of meeting 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 – Empathy for 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 want to say “no.” That integrity lies, so often, in our early life experiences around not being heard, received, and welcomed around our “no.”
Frequently, our inner young ones learned to fear a 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 or him, 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 them. Scoop them up in your adult arms, wrap them tightly in a blanket and wear them on your back, cradle them, sing to them, or if they want, simply hold their young hand.
Let them know:
I see you.
I’m here with you.
Presence. Attunement. Kindness.
These are so often the needs that the young one craved.
Offer them these needs now. Tell them they are not crazy for having difficulty in saying “no.” Offer compassion for the fear that freezes them and the anger that shakes them.
Notice what happens in their young body when you see and slow down for them. Stay with them as they digest a radically new experience of connection, and take in that they are not alone.
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 actively responding to those signs (without harshing on ourselves the times that we don’t), are how we begin to 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 life force 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 HECK 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.
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