‘No’ is the most powerful word in the English language. Due to social conditioning, many women and some men have difficulty saying this simple word. That’s because our brain has been trained to operate in pathways that tend to avoid the word ‘no’. It can be intensely stressful to ignore a well reinforced pathway and forge a new one. Saying ‘no’ to the things we don’t want (for people who tend to have difficulty with it) is a habit that must be worked at consistently, until it becomes second nature.
I was not born assertive. But I was always curious about how the world works. And that includes me, who I am, and how I respond to various situations. As my self awareness grew, so did my ability to say ‘no’ to things I did not like. If we do not know who we are, it’s hard to assess what we want. Knowing what we want can help us turn down the offers we don’t want.
However, self awareness takes us only so far. The ‘yes’ response is so primeval that we may say it even when we don’t want to and are aware of what we dislike. Saying ‘yes’ to things we dislike or are uncomfortable with can build a lot of stress – in some cases, this can even lead to severe anxiety or other psychological illnesses. It is therefore crucial to understand the subtleties surrounding this ‘yes’ inducing behavior and keep those in mind to counter it. On my road to becoming increasingly assertive, I’ve tried to observe myself and understand what makes me say ‘yes’ when I don’t want to. Based on these observations, I’ve tried to come up with certain strategies that would help me counter this illogical urge to say an unwilling ‘yes’. I hope you find these strategies useful.
Know your rights
In many Eastern cultures, a sense of entitlement and the need for conformity can create relationships driven by control. Unsolicited advice (with intentions ranging from well meaning to downright evil) is given in the name of caring for the other person. Resistance is often greeted with a range of negative emotions. In all cultures (including Western), there is at least some degree of societal pressure to do things that someone else sees as appropriate.
Know that other people cannot tell you what to wear (except for reasonable professional requirements in a workplace ), what to eat, how to schedule your day (when to wake up, shower, etc). As an adult, you get to decide when to go out, who should or need not accompany you, where to go, and whom you’d like to hang out with, and how you get to spend the money you earn. You alone have the right and responsibility for ensuring your well being, safety, and financial upkeep.
Many of us know these rights but conditioning keeps kicking in – so reminding ourselves of our rights is a good idea.
Recognize signs of boundary crossing
If the in-laws or neighbors are giving unsolicited advice, it is easy to recognize that a boundary is being crossed. It is much harder to recognize this when it happens between spouses or partners. There is so much common territory and lots of room for error.
A spouse can make positive, relevant suggestions regarding children, finances, or house work because those are all joint responsibilities. It is best for a spouse to stay away from advice regarding choice of friends or activities (unless these are directly impacting his or her rights in some way).
A good way to recognize right from wrong is to ask what the impact of the actions of one are on the other. If there is no impact, then there should be no criticism/suggestions for improvement. My husband’s tendency to while away his free time following a certain baseball team (incomprehensible to me) is really none of my business. If he does that when it’s his turn to cook, then it impacts me, and I have the right to bring it up. My tendency to be OCD about house cleaning is none of his business unless my extreme cleaning has a cost to the family’s well being.
Recognize coercive speech
When you finally muster the courage to say ‘no’, it can be greeted with resistance. You will be told things that are meant to change your mind. Coercive speech looks like this –
“I thought you were better than this.”
“You always ……”
“You never ……”
“My mom would’ve done this for me.”
“I’m not sure I can love you the same way if you do this.”
“Where in the world did you get this crazy idea??”
“Is this your crazy side talking.”
“Did your friend give you this advice?”
“Do you want to end up like him?”
“You are beginning to turn into your dad.”
Recognize coercive behavior
Your ‘no’ can be greeted with coercive behavior. Coercive behavior is harder to recognize than words because it is less concrete and attacks our vulnerabilities (someone social is more easily weakened by being shut down, by being refused conversation). Coercive behavior can look like this
– not talking, sulking
– not eating
– giving disappointed looks or mean looks
– avoiding interaction
– appearing sad, depressed
– banging doors, put objects down with force
– long periods of silence with deep sighs
– making indirect negative/mocking remarks about you while talking to someone else
– doing things that annoy you, being petty, getting back at you, making simple things harder.
If you are struggling to say ‘no’, buy some time with responses like –
“Let me think about that and get back to you.”
“I have to go now, let’s talk about this later.”
Giving yourself space and time to understand what you might me getting yourself into can be helpful. You can mull over things, understand the consequences of giving in to pressure, reaffirm your dislike or discomfort with the offer, and come back with a much more confident ‘no’. A confident ‘no’ is important because a weak ‘no’ is just an uncomfortable ‘yes’ waiting to happen.
Turn it back on them
Some well meaning people give advice when they think that the whole world thinks like them – therefore what they like, others must like, what works for them must work for others. In such cases you can turn the advice back to them –
Consider this suggestion: “You should wake up early. You can get a great, non-stressful start to the day that way.”
You could respond, “Are you an early riser?”
And if they respond yes and rave about this habit of theirs, you could say “Good for you! I’m glad you’ve found a way to get in your exercise!”
To: “You should dress up more, you look so pretty with jewelry!”
You could respond: “Do you like jewelry? What kind do you like to wear?”
Of course, the straightforward way is to simply say things like –
“I will wake up when I want to. What’s your problem?”
Or “I don’t like wearing jewelry”
Or “I feel pretty being myself”
Or “I don’t care if you think I’m pretty or not.”
But it may not be so simple for some people. Dismissing unassertive behavior as “getting what they deserve” is unhelpful. Human behavior can’t be easily explained. We don’t always do what’s logical – that is what’s good and healthy for us.
Therefore the above suggestions (turning it back on the person giving advice, etc.) are for people who struggle with making such assertive statements – or for people who live in such a strong culture of hierarchy or conformity that a ‘no’ to advice invites a distinctly negative reaction.
State the problem
If you stay away from the ‘no’ word for fear of hurting someone’s feelings, you can spotlight your own discomfort, thus taking the focus away from “criticizing” them –
“I don’t like being told what to wear. I prefer deciding for myself.”
“I feel uncomfortable being asked to go to this party.”
“I don’t enjoy being forced to make a decision on this.”
No matter how you say it, learning to say ‘no’ is one of the most important things we can teach our kids. And as for us adults, it can be extremely liberating.
If you’ve always been assertive, good for you! If you are working on it, what do you do and what has worked for you? If you struggle with it more than the average person, what could be getting in the way? Please share your thoughts and experiences.