“If you tell someone “no” and they react in anger, they just confirmed that you made the right decision. If you tell someone no and they try to shame you into a yes, they’ve just confirmed that you made the right decision. If you tell someone no and they berate you, they’ve just confirmed that you’re a genius.”
– Jon Acuff
Saying no ain’t easy to do. There are rare people for whom it comes naturally, but for most of us, it’s a challenging task. There are many reasons why this is so, and most of them come from societal and cultural programming. In fact, whereas it’s difficult for most Western people to say no, there are other cultures in the world where it is commonplace. In American culture, it is especially hard for women to say no. We are trained from a young age to be obedient and to always do what is asked of us “like good little girls.”
It turns out that this narrative is incredibly harmful and is in fact at the root of many mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. When someone believes that they have no autonomy in their life, that they don’t get to choose what they do and don’t do, it leads to a feeling of extreme helplessness. We are guilt tripped and cajoled by people who supposedly love us to do things that don’t feel good to us, including sexual acts. I have seen thousands of women who said yes to some sexual act because they felt like they didn’t have the right to say no. The result? It felt as horrible as being sexually assaulted. The “yes” was there but the consent was not.
Patients come to me for a variety of reasons, but one of the first things that I do is to help them regain a sense of power and control over their own lives. Many people, and especially women, don’t feel like they have any choices in life. They believe that they are at the whim of their husbands, their bosses, and their children. It turns out that none of this is actually true. This is a false narrative which has been programmed into them by their family and society.
One of the most important ways to empower someone to take back control over their own life is to teach them the power of saying “no.” You’d be surprised to find out how many people didn’t even know that this was an option! They sometimes say, “well I can’t say no….I have to say yes because……” However, when delving into the issue more deeply, they eventually realize that they CAN SAY NO!!! No one can stop you from saying no. It is ALWAYS an option!
I have struggled with saying no all of my life. I was also raised in a family where saying “no” was akin to blasphemy. I have spent the past few years of my life practicing saying no, and it has been life changing. It turns out that much of my mental and physical suffering was the direct result of my inability to say no! And now that I’m flexing this muscle, my life is improving drastically.
Another important thing to remember is that no is a complete sentence! This means that you can say no without having to justify it and explain your reasons. While it may sometimes be helpful to communicate your reasons for saying no, it is not required! You don’t “owe” anyone anything, despite what they might say to you.
I was inspired to write this post as this is something that has come up in my own family recently. My sister asked me to do something that is simply impossible for me to do. I know that I could certainly try to do it, but that it would come at the cost of my own physical and mental health which is already being tested by the multiple responsibilities in my life – being a mother, a teacher, a wife, a business owner, etc. I didn’t WANT to say no, but I HAD to say no. And just as the quote above predicted, my sister reacted with extreme anger. She projected all of her rage and pent up frustration about her own life towards me. She criticized every aspect of my personality, my family and my life (including the fact that I drink smoothies and do yoga!)
I experienced pain all the way to my core, and I’m still processing my emotions. As much as I’d like to be angry at her in return, and spew all kinds of hate and criticisms her way, I absolutely refuse to. I realize that her behavior stems from a place of deep pain. I realize that she struggles with saying no herself, as she grew up in the same family and culture that I did. And her anger is not really at me. It’s at herself. She doesn’t understand why I “get” to say no when she “can’t” say no. This is the classic pattern of people who feel helpless in their own lives. My hope is that one day she may realize that the only person who gets to decide how her life goes is her. Until that day comes, I will continue to try and support her journey and understand her perspective, despite how difficult that is.
Do you also struggle with saying no? I propose you try a 40 day challenge (it takes 40 days to rewire the brain). For the next 40 days, try saying no EVERY time you want to say no. No matter what. If you want to say yes, and your heart is in it, by all means, say yes! However, if it’s something you can’t do or simply don’t want to do, just say no! And then see how your life is transformed after those 40 days. I can guarantee that you won’t be the same person anymore once you realize that YOU have the power to CHANGE YOUR LIFE BY SAYING NO!