Content Warning: mentions of abusive behaviour, trauma, consent transgressions and gaslighting
No is sometimes a very difficult word to say.
I believe that human beings are wired for connection, so rejecting someone’s wants or requests can feel wrong, as it can feel like jeopardising a human connection. It can be especially difficult if the person we are saying no to is someone we care about, or someone with privileges we lack, or any kind of power over us – or perhaps a combination of these, as a child might view their parent.
The social system I was raised in meant I was conditioned to avoid saying no; by my parents who raised me to be kind, polite and caring of other people’s needs, not selfish; by my schooling that taught me to fit in, comply, be quiet and pass tests; by films, and songs, and books with countless examples of girls being nice, or else ending up in very bad or shameful situations.
As an adult, I’ve found myself in work and personal situations where I’ve reluctantly or counter-intuitively gone along with doing things I didn’t really want to do… and fortunate that none of those were extremely traumatic, for me. I’ve stayed in relationships that were unhappy, jobs that I hated, situations that I didn’t want to be in, because being brave enough to stand up for myself and say “I don’t want this”, “I won’t do this”, or “I choose to change this” was just too damn hard, or scary.
I know far too many people who have found themselves in dangerous, harmful, traumatic or abusive situations, where compliance felt safer than the potential harm of resisting. I will not advocate for anyone to compromise their survival and safety – if your “no” feels too dangerous to utter, then I hope you can find an escape route. I hope that once you are safe, you can heal and experience that safety fully, and learn that your no will be heard and respected, without putting you in harm’s way.
I understand. I’ve been a pleaser. Now, I am learning to please myself. One of the toughest parts for me is feeling selfish, and the guilt or even shame that goes with that. I hate to feel like I’m letting people down, hurting their feelings, not meeting their expectations of me.
The thing is, that when I put other people’s needs ahead of my own, eventually I can end up in a place where I let go of my boundaries. If I stop taking care of myself, prioritising my own needs and finding ways to meet them, I end up trying to pour from an empty cup, and that’s not helping anyone.
I’ve been on the flip side of this in relationships, and it hurts. It can even be harmful. When someone won’t say no to you, but instead keeps on trying to please, placate, say things they think they want you to hear rather than holding their own boundaries and speaking an honest no, that relationship can quickly become harmful, for either or both people in it. Whether pleasing and placating comes from past abuse or trauma, or from just being a kind person who doesn’t want to disappoint or upset someone they care about, it is a form of dishonesty. In my experience, a relationship built on dishonesty is not a safe place to be.
Being open, honest and fully present in a relationship can be a challenge. Empathy is wonderful, but it can be hard to feel the pain of someone’s disappointment or their feelings of rejection, when being honest about your own needs means you’re not fully meeting theirs.
The social scripts about romantic relationships tell us that one person should be able to meet all the needs of their romantic partner, and vice versa… and that if those needs are unmet, the relationship may founder. Perhaps one or both will “cheat”, secretly looking elsewhere to get needs met. Perhaps one or both will compromise their own needs or values, harming themself by working selflessly to put the relationship first. This belief that “love hurts” – or that one core romantic relationship is ideally at the core of our life and happiness – can keep people in relationships that are harmful and abusive.
No relationship is ever more important than the people in it.
Dishonesty can become a complex web to unravel. Denying your truth is painful, and so is being in a relationship with someone who is saying one thing, whilst feeling or doing another. At worst, this can escalate into gaslighting, manipulation, denial, frustration, anger, violence or other kinds of abusive behaviours. Being honest with yourself and others can be difficult, especially if you’ve survived these kinds of behaviours in past relationships – therapy and processing may help to break away from these kinds of patterns.
Conflicting needs in relationships can be addressed without causing harm. It requires honesty and openness, being able to speak about what those needs really are, even if it’s not what your partner wants to hear.
Long term relationships involve individuals evolving, growing, changing, and their wants and needs will shift – perhaps in different directions. Open, honest communication can help you accept and adjust to what has changed, perhaps changing the shape of the relationship or even ending it, if that is what one or both partners needs. It might be a difficult process, and it might cause pain for someone you love, but if you do love them, then they probably deserve to hear your honest no.
Above all, you deserve to speak your no, and stand by it. Nobody is entitled to your yes. Society is not entitled to your yes. When you can say no, loudly, clearly, shamelessly, and authentically, then you can also start saying yes to everything you really want. So, please, say yes to saying no.
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