Just one syllable, “No,” can be the hardest sound to make. Especially in the moment when it’s most crucial to utter this sound.
Not being able to say no is a debilitating handicap that I grew up with. But with practice, I’ve learned to find my voice.
What is involved in saying no? Why is it difficult? And how could it become easier?
It’s what I’m thinking and believing in a particular situation that makes saying no so difficult. And each situation is different because my thinking is different.
In one situation, I can’t say no because someone expects me to say yes, and they will be disappointed if I say no. They may withdraw their love from me as a result, and I’m afraid of that. In another situation, I predict that someone will be offended if I refuse to agree with them, and I fear that they may attack me as a result. In another situation, I worry that someone may start beating themselves up if I say no and go into a depression because of what I said.
There are so many different situations where no is difficult to say. But it’s always my perception of what will happen if I say no that stops me. Instead of listening to my heart, my honest no inside, I get caught up in the other person’s business, worrying about how they will react and trying to protect myself or trying to protect them.
There’s no external formula because it’s always my internal thinking that stops me from saying no each time. My thinking is different in each situation, so I can’t simply apply a one-size-fits-all technique if I want to get to the root of how to say no and mean it.
To really mean it when I say no, I have to actually see things differently. And that takes real inquiry.
In order to say no and mean it when someone may be disappointed in me, I have to see that it’s okay for them to be disappointed in me. In order to say no when someone may attack me for saying no, I have to see that the attack may not be as personal or as terrible as I imagined. And in order to say no when someone will be hurt by my no, I have to see that it’s not actually my responsibility to think for them and protect them.
I have to see a lot of things differently in order to say no and really mean it. And that can take a lot of stretching and changing of my point of view.
Instead of using a technique for saying no, I like to question my thinking. I like to play with lots of different points of view. I like to question my assumptions about the other person. And when I do, I often find that my thinking is not actually showing me the whole picture. When I start to see these other points of view, saying no becomes very simple.
I do something called The Work of Byron Katie (4 Questions and Turnarounds) (The Work), a simple form of self-inquiry. And I do this with any situation where I don’t know how to say no and mean it. I may use a situation where I failed to say no as a place to look at my thinking and question it. Or I may use a future situation where I know that I want to say no but am afraid that I won’t be able to.
The main thing is to find a real situation.
When I use a real situation, I know exactly what I’m thinking about that situation. I’m very familiar with the reasons why I’m having trouble, or had trouble, saying no. Then I literally write down my thinking and start to question what I wrote using the four questions and turnarounds of The Work.
I write my stressful thoughts about the other person on a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet. For example, if I was afraid that the person would disapprove of me if I said no, I would write a worksheet like this.
Line 1: I am afraid of her because she will disapprove of me (if I say no).
Line 2: I want her to like me.
I want her to keep being my friend.
I want her to understand me.
Line 3: She should understand that my no is not a rejection of her.
She should not take it personally.
She should appreciate my courage to be honest with her.
She should see that we can be closer when we’re honest.
She should see that I love her.
Line 4: I need her to share openly why it’s hard for her.
I need her to use it as the start for deeper communication.
I need her to be willing to be vulnerable with me.
I need her to thank me for being so honest with her.
Line 5: She is scary, intimidating, reactionary, not understanding.
Line 6: I don’t ever want to feel intimidated to say no to her again.
This whole worksheet is about a very specific incident. I’m just getting my stressful thoughts onto paper. Then I go through and question everything I wrote. For each statement, I ask myself:
1. Is it true?
2. Can I absolutely know it’s true?
3. How do I react, what happens, when I believe that thought?
4. Who would I be without that thought?
And I turn each thought around:
“She will disapprove of me” becomes:
1. I will disapprove of me.
2. I will disapprove of her.
3. She won’t disapprove of me.
And I find examples for each turnaround. For example, I find that what hurts most is when I disapprove of myself. This actually hurts more than when she disapproves of me. I’m the one who takes it all the way into my heart. And it’s also possible that she won’t disapprove of me, not as much as I am imagining. And not more than I can handle, or more than our friendship can handle.
And as I do, my thinking starts to shift. I find myself less afraid of her reaction, and more empowered to say no.
Doing The Work on situations like this can be an ongoing process of learning how to say no and mean it. I’m not forcing myself into saying no. I’m questioning the underlying thoughts and beliefs that stop me from saying no. And in doing so I often find that I start to gain freedom in expressing myself.
In my experience, this gets to the root of the problem. As I’ve done these worksheets, my ability to say no has become stronger. Even in new situations, I find myself seeing through my old patterns, and I find myself spontaneously less intimidated to say no.
For me, learning how to say no and mean it is a side effect of my ongoing practice of The Work of Byron Katie. Through this practice, I’m becoming clearer not only in how to say no and mean it but in many other ways as well.
If you want to learn how to do The Work or start using it on a regular basis to look at all the angles your mind may not be seeing, I invite you to participate in my online course, The Work 101.