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Saying No is hard, isn’t it?

It is something so many struggle with in their lives. Saying ‘No’ means disappointing someone, it means creating conflict, it makes us feel rude and maybe even disliked. Survivors of abuse often have an even harder time saying ‘No’, I know I did!

What Makes Saying No so Difficult?

Well, for most people it has to do with the negative emotions they experience. That sense of creating conflict or being disliked. Most people prefer to create or maintain a peaceful relationship.

For survivors of abuse there are more complicating factors. Saying ‘No’ is not something that toxic people accept. I can remember so many time where I said ‘no’ and my mother pushed through whatever she wanted anyway.

One year she volunteered me to waitress at a church fund-raiser. I was on sick-leave so I had the time (her logic, not mine). I told her I could not do this. My break down was so severe I could not even stand going to a supermarket for the sheer amount of sensory overload. She said: but I already volunteered you! If you pull out now, that leaves me with a staffing problem. I ended up doing “a couple of hours” for the time she could not find other staff. I was exhausted!

And so saying No was not only difficult, it was useless. Even if I worked up the nerve, my ‘no‘ was simply ignored. In some cases it even caused real problems, when it would spark anger, rage or revenge. Slowly but surely I learned not to say no. I learned that suffering in silence was easier. I learned to always give in.

A Balance of Yes and No

Saying yes or no is about making choices in your life. It means setting priorities and deciding what is good or bad for you. In fact both saying yes and no, is an important aspect of self-care. It allows us to create the life that makes us feel happy, loved, and healthy. I wanted to say no to waitressing, because my health would suffer. By saying ‘no’ we guard our boundaries.

You get to make decisions about how you spend your time, who you let into your inner circle, and what parts of yourself you share with the people who are close to you.
You also get to decide what needs you are going to prioritize in your life, and what you say “Yes” to and what you say “No” to
(From: Getting Comfortable With Boundaries: How (And Why) To Say No by Molly Merson).

As a survivor I often felt that saying no, made me egocentric. I felt I was thinking too much of myself. I guess that is an effect of growing up second to my mother’s selfish needs. I have learned however that we make choices based not only on our own needs and wants, but also those of the people around us, and their importance and significance in our lives. For example we may want to say no to a dinner with the in-laws because we don’t like them very much, but we don’t because we understand the importance of said dinner for our significant other. We can compromise two hours to accommodate a dinner. At the same time we can insist that those same in-laws not stay in our house when they come to visit for two weeks, because it would drive us insane.

When I Started Saying No

When I started learning to say no, I soon realized the enormous amount of guilt I was plowing through.

Whenever I said no to something, I would launch into a lengthy speech explaining why I made this choice. Should my partner ask: Do you want pasta tonight? I could easily answer something like: “No, I don’t think so. We had that lasagna two days ago, and besides I think the restaurant that our staff outing is at serves mostly pasta, and I had quite a large lunch as well, so if you don’t mind to have something else that could be great, we can always have pasta on the weekend”. Now imagine that the questions pertained to something more important than dinner…

As I progressed on my journey, I became more and more aware of this tendency to justify things. I think at some level I was justifying not just my choices, but my actual existence.

Self-Awareness Is the Key

I recognize that awareness is the first step in healing or changing.
I become more aware with each passing day.
– Louise Hay

Becoming aware of my instinct to justify everything was difficult, but important. This behavior was instinctive and subconscious. My partner was a big help in providing me a mirror. I asked him to gently point out the justifications. It still annoyed me endlessly. Especially in the beginning I felt he was calling out a fault. It made me feel like I was failing a test. As soon as I could acknowledge that effect, I could start to let go of that feeling. Then I became able to take his feedback not as a criticism, but rather as the learning it was intended to be.

Once I became forgiving of myself, I began to develop the ability to recognize my own behavior.

Last week when my partner asked me about an activity, and I said no, I got about 5 words into my justification for saying no, and then it happened. I stopped and said: Oh, I am justifying, never mind. I finally managed to stop the behavior as I was doing it. My last step will be to not justify any more. I am not quite there yet, but I will get there. Over time I will learn to identify the triggering emotion, and that will allow me to develop better behavioral strategies too. Like saying no, without feeling compelled to supply a justification.

What I Learned About Learning to Say No

I think learning to say no is an individual process, but here is what I learned:

  • Recognize that you find it hard to say no.
  • Listen to your heart and find out which emotions are triggered by saying no.
  • Is there a certain behavior that is triggered by those emotions?
  • Ask a trusted friend or partner to help you become aware of the pattern.
  • Be kind to yourself and practice forgiveness for having developed this behavioral pattern.
  • When you become aware of the behavior, try to stop. Even if that means walking away from a situation mid-sentence. The person/people that helped you become aware, are usually also good people to practice this with.
  • Once you detect the trigger before the behavior, you can learn a new strategy.

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Having gained experience while working for a variety of European non-profits, I am proud to now work with SwanWaters. My connection with the website is not only professional. I am glad to tap into my personal experiences to help those who are living in toxic relationships whether with parents, partners or in their professional life. We need to make the world more aware of the devastating effects of emotional abuse and help more people on their way to heal and thrive.

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What I Learned About Saying No

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