Ushering in the Era of 'No'


Who knew this monosyllabic, rudimentary, almost-nothing of a word could be so powerful?

Who knew it’s very utterance could be seen as resistance? As revolutionary?

Who knew that despite it being one of the very first words I’d learn how to say, that it’d also be one I’d spend my whole life trying to really understand and master?

Not me.


To say that ‘No’ was not in my vocabulary would be just a shade shy of hyperbolic. But just a shade. And a shy one at that. Born out of a societal and personal need to be liked, I have always blurred the lines between acting and being an agreeable person, for reasons I wasn’t always quite aware of. This hue of my personality has not always been the brightest color in the painting, but to say it tinted the canvas of my life would not be much of a stretch. I learned early on that the best way to avoid attention and avoid conflict was to diminish what I wanted in favor of pleasing the collective. It retained the most favorable odds that I remained likable and attracted the very least amount of attention, good or bad, which is about as non-threatening (and likable) as it gets. Success, of course, breeds a new set of challenges, and I found that over time, the pleasant reputation I had inadvertently and sacrificially built became addictive-- and a powerful measure by which I’d size up my value to those I was in any sort of relationship with.

It starts by setting a troubling precedent about the validation of my own thoughts, feelings, and desires. Sort of subconsciously, I had been teaching others that my thoughts could be treated as inconsequential because I treated them that way. Even more troubling, because I am dismissive of what I want and am assigned a positive response, I've normalized and internalized self-sacrifice as a value proposition, as an indication of how worthy I am, not only to myself but to those I make the sacrifices for. Exposed to the light of day, this sentiment seems ridiculous. How can I only be of value to others if I’m flavorless and acquiescent? Despite this faulty logic, it's not hard to imagine the sort of 'relationship martyrdom' dynamic that takes root, and can become a prerequisite to the relationship’s survival, all because it’s become embedded in the DNA. Inextricably, saying ‘No’ becomes tantamount to a betrayal to the unspoken contract. And you almost can’t blame people for how you’ve trained them.

What people who have been so unfortunately trained can sometimes be a little slow to appreciate is that healthy boundaries are in the best interests of everyone. Those who truly care about me will undoubtedly understand that I am a sentient, thoughtful person with opinions and desires of my own, and they’ll respect my right to make decisions in alignment accordingly. When ‘No’ becomes part of my vernacular, there may be some resistance initially, but ultimately, American financier Bernard Baruch said it best:

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind.”

Dynamics shift in relationships all the time; accepting some relationships as seasonal if growth is not mutually occurring or respected is sometimes the reality of the situation. Funnily enough, or perhaps by design, when I’m allowed freedom and space to be a complete person, I’m a lot more pleasant to be around too. The suppression of self is a suppression of authenticity, a kind of murdering of the soul-- a formidable barrier to real connection, which ultimately breeds loneliness, isolation, and resentment. None of which lend themselves to genuine, lasting and mutually rewarding relationships.  

I imagine how different my life could look by employing this little rabble-rouser of a microword- how much self-respect I’d cultivate, how much healthier my relationships would feel, and how much peace and happiness I could steal back from a world so severely lacking in both, particularly lately. How much more could I contribute to society, to my family, to my friends by removing the facade of agreeability and becoming a real person? What would this new me be capable of? Even if the implementation of my new, expanded vocabulary causes a bit of consternation, I think the pursuit is worth every drop of it. Every inch I make up on the long road to complete self-discovery is an inch worth taking. And for as much as I’ve intertwined my self-worth to how much I can give, there’s never as good a time as now to begin the careful, intentional process of extrapolating one from the other. For ‘No’ doesn’t have to be anything more or less than what it is- stripped of the context, it can be simple and situational, and devoid of projected intrinsic value. It can be reclaiming the right to take up space without apologies. ‘No’ as a powerful mantra of self-worth dependent not upon the validation of others, but of the thoughtful, deliberate prioritization of self. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the day, this can be a loving act, both towards yourself and those you care about.

Some may find it self-centered-- which I guess, is exactly the point. We subscribe to this moral code of conduct that elevates perpetual self-sacrifice (particularly for women) as a virtue, against our very nature, and then we superciliously congratulate ourselves for white-knuckling our way through the urge to center our own feelings. Doesn’t seem like a very prudent system, or one that would be conducive to fulfillment or joy. What if we’ve got it all backward, and our instinct to self-protect can be rebranded as a logical, compassionate tool by which we refuel, reframe, and/or re-engage with our worlds? Would it be easier to swallow then?

I’m drawing a big, two lettered line in the sand-- because I deserve it, you deserve it, or perhaps most compellingly, the best I have to give and all I have to give do not always draw from the same well.