It’s standard practice to raise children to be polite. Less standard, perhaps, is understanding that polite, like gender, race, even illness, is a cultural construct. Point in time, location, and religion are only a few of the factors that determine which behaviors a society deems to be polite. In my childhood home, polite meant don’t hit your sister, say please and thank you, don’t slurp your soup, and be agreeable. Be agreeable, in practice, meant no talking back, don’t overreact, and do as you are told.
As we grow up, especially so for women, we are pushed along the Path of Most Agreeable. For a lot of us, straying off course is often met with an onslaught of negative reinforcement. Disagree at work? You’re a disruptor. Disagree in a romantic partnership? You’re overreacting. Disagree with your family? Man, you’ve really changed. As a reminder, “you’ve really changed” is usually a euphuism for “What you’re doing or saying conflicts with the box I already put you in and I don’t like it.”
Conditioned thinking presents being agreeable as our best, if not only, option. Our experiences reinforce this message, but somewhere deep in our gut, we know we won’t survive on the Path of Most Agreeable. Physiological warning bells begin to ring when we’re faced with a request that pushes us to yes when we really mean no. That physiological response is attempting to warn us that someone has breached our emotional, spiritual, or physical perimeter. We are subconsciously rejecting another person’s energy, influence, or touch. When we ignore these alarms, we’re on our way to The Resentful Yes.
The Resentful Yes is the result of ignoring our physiological responses, disregarding our values, or acting against our best emotional, spiritual, and physical interests. Have you heard the adage, “Better to be rude and safe than polite and dead”? That second option is The Resentful Yes on steroids. However, even lighter Resentful Yeses compound to harm a person’s well-being. After too many Resentful Yeses, we’re left overextended, exhausted, and unhappy.
It’s easy to understand why saying no is difficult. We were culturally conditioned our entire lives to say yes. That’s a lot of personal narrative to rewrite in the name of a new Life of No. But “no” is just a boundary by a different name and boundaries are mandatory (yah, you heard me – mandatory) in cultivating authentic kindness, compassion, and emotional, spiritual, and physical health.
To quote Brené Brown from her book The Gifts of Imperfection, “If we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior.”
If we have a 20 to 70-year history of saying yes, how do we start saying no? I’m so glad you asked!
Listen to your body to get to know your personal physiological alarm bells. A clenched jaw, holding your breath, or a knot in your stomach are all possible signs it’s time to say no to the request you just received.
Take a beat to explore what about the situation makes you uncomfortable with saying yes. Do you feel unsafe? Do you feel like you’re being asked to do something that doesn’t align with your values?
Honor the intel you gathered and make the best decision you are able to make with the information you have. If you’re still on the fence, ask more questions.
Sit in your discomfort. Tough Truth Time: Saying no IS (can be) uncomfortable. All of your conditioned thinking may flood your brain with resistance, but your intuition, your deeper self, already provided the answer.
Accept that there may be negative consequences to saying no. However, anyone who is worth having in your life will respect you. Weeding out the rest will not be the worst thing to happen to your health and happiness.
Say no with kindness…unless your physical safety is being jeopardized. Scream for help and run away if that’s the case.
If you say no with kindness, you may opt to disclose your intentions. If you are setting a “no” boundary in a close relationship it may help the other person better understand your perspective and may even create a safe space for problem solving within the relationship.
Several of my friends think I’m the Grand Czarina of No. Too bad for them, they’re wildly incorrect. I’m a people pleaser, a perfectionist, and highly anxious – all titles and traits that thrive on being agreeable. I recently lost a close friend and a job because I didn’t know how to say no. I could see the wheels of conditioned thinking turning while my intuition was fighting to be heard with every chance I had to assert my boundary and say no. The conditioned thinking won and my soul lost.
At the risk of sounding like one of those people who positive-wash everything around them, what great opportunities lie ahead where I, you, we, can practice releasing the urge to say the Resentful Yes in honor of responding with a Kind No.