The Power of No

I was thinking about the word ‘no’ the other day. That is, the no you use to set up boundaries … then again, is there any other way to use it? No, to more ice cream; no, to unwelcome advances; and no, to those I-just-don’t-wanna moments. I especially love the no that comes from toddlers. They are emphatic, making both letters count in that heavily invested word. (Of course, I am not a mother of a two year old so I can say that with complete sincerity). Anyhow, without getting into the ‘no means no’ campaign of unwelcome sexual advances, of which I stand behind 100%, I want to talk about the no’s that are not so heavily invested—the no’s that come from our codependent parts.

For years when I would say no, a part of me, the codependent part, that is, was really thinking, I am saying no but the truth is, I don’t really have the right to say no. In fact, this part of me would sometimes feel better when others didn’t honour my no. Today I understand that it felt better because it ‘served’ me in ways that I was not yet conscious but as a result many people back then would not respect my boundaries. I was sending out mixed messages.

I’ll give you an example: About ten years ago I held what is called a casual part time job composed of regular days and some optional on-call shifts. One day, after finishing my regular hours, the manager called me into the office and asked if I would work the next day. I said no. Although I didn’t give a reason, the fact was I hated the job, wasn’t desperate for money and was tired; no seemed appropriate. My boss didn’t accept it. She ‘made’ me stay in her office while she looked for someone to fill the schedule. The implicit threat was that if she could not find someone else I would have to take the shift or be without a job. It was a most uncomfortable ten minutes listening to her phone the on-call list while she glared at me with undiluted disdain. Thankfully, someone eventually did come to my rescue and said yes; I was ‘free’ to go.

An interesting scenario: the manager had no legal authority to hold me there, demand that I work, or fire me if I didn’t, but I stayed in her office out of some feeling that perhaps she did. My initial no meant nothing because I didn’t back myself up. It was a no without substance. My no was meaningless because a part of me felt I did not have any rights. So, instead of giving her an undeniable no, I sat waiting for another employee to come to my rescue. Worse, I knew that if I had worked the shift I would have later cashed in with sympathy votes from my friends. I was the perfect codependent partner for my bully boss: she used me to feel powerful and hence valid in who she was; I used her bullying ways to get social support from my friends, another form of validity.

To say no and mean it, we have to fully believe in our right to ‘be’: the right to exist here and now in safety; to believe and feel what we want; to laugh, sing, dance, express anger and sadness; to love and to maintain the  right to silence and personal space. When we feel the right to be, we feel a validity in who we are. Without a belief in this intrinsic right, we end up looking towards others for validation. In the above story neither my boss nor I felt we had the intrinsic right to be. However subtle, my manager was relying on her power over me to give her validity and I was relying on her to validate my victimhood, an unconscious way to get people to care for and love me. It was serving us both, albeit in dysfunctional ways.

Becoming conscious of our less than adamant no’s is embarrassing when we first see our complicity. However all is not lost. Regardless of the past, when we do stand up and say no with all intent, people stand up and listen. Only the true abuser, sensing their power diminishing in the face of such conviction, will attempt to tread over that sacred ground. When we say no and mean it, we are assuring our codependent parts that we have every right to be. And with that assurance our power is unshakable.

Jo-Ann Svensson teaches ‘Creative Codependence’ and is a BodyMind Practitioner.