The Power of “No”

File:No sign.svg

Most people don’t realize how much power they have. Or how easily they give it away.

The key is to be able to say “no.” And to hold to that position without alteration.

I learned how easily I could give it away in graduate school.

A door-to-door salesman rang the bell of my apartment. He had a list of magazines. Did I want to subscribe to any of these?

The simple and direct answer was “no.” Had I said this and held to it steadfastly, his time wouldn’t have been wasted and my money, of which I had very little, would have been saved. Instead, I felt that I had to give him a reason, an excuse. I didn’t of course.

But, I chose to say, “Gee, its too bad you don’t have Sports Illustrated on your list.”

“Oh, but I can get that for you!”

I was sunk. I didn’t really want to buy anything. But I’d given the young man, probably no older than I was, an opening. And now I was committed to purchase a thing I didn’t need.

Well, I suppose I was young, inexperienced, and immature. All true. I allowed myself to be held hostage to my insecurity, a feeling of guilt, a need to explain myself, even though it wasn’t required.

If you must have the approval of others, if you believe that you are duty-bound to give them a reason for your actions, then these situations present you with a problem. So too, if you fear confrontation. If you think someone will only provide approval if you consent to their wishes, then you will leave the interaction as the other’s thrall. In effect, the keys to your life and the certificate of ownership will be the property of someone else.

But if you don’t let them or their opinion of you count for so much — if you can live with their unhappiness and don’t feel the need to convince them of the rightness of your position — you will come out of the interaction still in possession of yourself, as opposed to being the possession of your counterpart.

Remember, in many situations you don’t have to persuade the person across the table of your position. You just have to hold to it.

Short of pulling a weapon on you, there is usually very little that people can do to require you to do something that you don’t want to do.

Unfortunately, there are quite a number of people, especially female, who are able to say “no” in defense of their children, but not as an advocate for themselves; all the more, they are prepared to go on attack if they believe that those same little ones have been ill-served by someone else. And yet, when it comes to defending themselves, these moms have trouble. Put simply, it comes down to the fact that they don’t value themselves very highly and therefore can’t easily assert themselves. But for a person they do value, especially their flesh and blood, they are transformed.

If you can’t yet do it for yourself — say “no,” stand your ground — you’ve got some work to do. Your life will be much more the life that you want it to be, if you prevent others from taking you in their direction against your wishes. Think of all the favors you’ve done that you wanted to avoid, the responsibilities you took on at work that really shouldn’t have been yours to take, and (for some women only) the men whose attention you suffered unnecessarily.

If you can’t prevent these things on your own, psychotherapy can help you to learn to employ the word “no” to great effect. It allows you to examine the reasons for your inability to be assertive and gives you tools (and practice) in how to live in a new way.

The ability to say “no” is extraordinarily empowering.

This is one thing you shouldn’t say “no” to.

The above image is by Fibonacci from Wikimedia Commons.

4 thoughts on “The Power of “No”

  1. David Gottshall

    Thank you for this article. I passed it along to my 23 year old daughter. She burns the candle at both ends and struggles with “no”.

    I found your blog looking up information on Jackie Robinson supporters. It led me to your article on Hate and Health Reform. Great piece! Thanks again.



  2. I used to have a hard time saying no. Then I learned to say no, and all the people I knew got mad at me for saying no. They weren’t used to it. They wanted an explanation. They thought I hated them. They were disappointed. I think I caved with a few people, but I began this mantra of explaining. I knew to say no, but I didn’t learn that my no didn’t require an explanation – at least not to everyone, and at least not in the detail I had presented. Eventually, they got sick of my explanations or excuses. I soon knew who my real friends were from those who just wanted to use me. I also knew whether I was appreciated for the work that I had offered, or whether it was expected over and over again. My failure in saying no to certain men who propositioned me for sex when I was homeless, desperate for a place to crash, and alone with a man I knew in his home. I didn’t want to be raped again, and I didn’t want to be homeless. I didn’t want to be vulnerable, but I was. I figured, if I said yes, it would be quick, easy, my choice, consensual, and not rape. I regretted saying yes. I feared saying no. I wanted to say no. And the men weren’t entirely wrong to ask me. They were just being them. I just didn’t want to find out if my no would have meant yet another rape. I feared saying no then, but today I no longer fear saying no, and I most certainly wouldn’t say yes if I ever became homeless again or in a vulnerable situation like that again. I wished I had said no back then. I really did. I can only blame myself for that, but at least my homeless days were short-lived.


  3. I’m so sorry you had to experience this. No one who has been simultaneously both homeless and a rape victim is in a position to judge your choices. Moreover, you might want to think about what I have read from some Holocaust survivors. They feel as if the world of “before” and “after” was a different world than the skewed world of losing all possessions, losing their homes, losing loved ones, being transported in railway box cars, losing their names in return for tattooed numbers, being starved, being subjected to physical brutality, and housed like cargo. Treated, in other words like the “Untermenschen” they were called. In such an upside down world, all the rules of civilized society are harder to apply, yet we tend to apply the “before” and “after” standards to our judgements. Therefore, I would say this to you, Multinomial. Be careful not to judge the self you were “then” by the rules that apply to the world you inhabit “now.”


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