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The Power of "No"

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

I can say no without explaining, justifying, or taking responsibility for other people's reactions.

There's a reason why "no" is one of the first things a (healthy) young child learns to say.

It's the first step in her individuation, her capacity to assert her sense of self, separate from those around her. A child who says no is a child who has access to her felt sense, her inner knowing, her understanding of what is and is not ok with her. A child who can say no feels safe with the adults in her life. She knows they will still love her even if she disagrees with them, pushes back at them, steps away from them.

She can be in touch with - and express - her authenticity without jeopardizing her attachment.

This was not my experience as a child. I don't remember ever saying no. I remember feeling it - feeling deeply that something was terribly wrong with what was happening around me. But there was no arising of knowing, of strength, of push back. There was confusion. There was fear. There was shame. But no anger. Before I can even remember, I had learned not to express anger and thus not even to feel it.

Anger is the capacity to say "no" when "no" is warranted. It's the fundamental assertion of self. Anger is setting healthy boundaries. Anger is a defense against a physical or emotional violation. So why are we so afraid of it? Why is it so readily repressed, suppressed, shamed?

Parents are advised to make rules and set limits, to punish angry behavior with a time out. Or to ignore an angry child. Let them cry it out. Wait until they calm down and then engage with them. An obedient child is labeled a "good child." A baby who doesn't cry is a "good baby." Oh what a good baby! She never cries! She sleeps through the night! Is this good? Or has she already learned not to bother asserting her needs? Is it temperament or learned helplessness?

Our culture does accept that a toddler can and even should say no as a sign of healthy development. It can even be seen as cute. But if it happens "often" - which is the DSM's vague and arbitrary criterion for a mental heath disorder - it gets labeled as Oppositional Defiant Disorder. ODD is a psychiatric diagnosis applied to children as young as 2 or 3 years old. The label often persists throughout childhood and into adolescence. It's a sickness. It requires intervention.

I find my body filling with rage as I write this. A person who can't say no cannot set limits. She loses touch with her gut feelings, her inner compass. She has no clear boundaries. She is severed from her Self.

Why would a child become "oppositional?" Only because his "no" was not honored. His boundaries were not respected. His needs were not met. He's not mentally ill. He's desperate. He's angry.

My home was filled with rage but it mostly roiled and boiled beneath the surface. My mother seethed with resentment. She rarely yelled. Her anger showed up in a chillingly cold voice and a withdrawal of affection. Her anger was a threat - always hanging in the air. My father withdrew in resignation - he was clinically depressed but not diagnosed until his 50s. Occasionally he exploded - yelling and cursing at things like broken light bulbs, traffic jams, or other impersonal offenses. We'd run and hide, my sisters and I. Those are some of my most terrifying memories.

My older sister was "colicky" as a baby - her body sending her signals of discomfort, of needs that weren't being met. She cried all the time and threw up after she was fed. My mother was terrified that she was starving her to death. She was alone, without support, in an era when mothers were basically blamed for their baby's behavior and temperament. Then, when my sister was 2 1/2, I came along. My mother describes me as a delightful baby, always happy. I was a relief, a breath of fresh air after her experience with her first born. Maybe I allowed her to believe she wasn't a terrible mother after all. Maybe I soothed her fear.

My theory is that pretty much as soon as I arrived in my family, I felt into the environment and the people around me, and decided that my job was to be the Not Angry one. It was how I stayed safe. Anger was terrifying, menacing. So I just didn't DO anger.

This is me at age 5 or 6, the essence of a 'good girl," smiling, hands crossed, dressed up all pretty. I practically disappear - ghost-like - into the background in the neo-Victorian white blouse that bound my arms and throat. I remember being that age. I liked to climb rocks and trees, run around in the woods, and make mud pies. But I showed up like this with a smile for some holiday or birthday, most likely. The blouse was tight and itchy. My mother had hand-made the skirt out of fabric left over from my bedroom curtains. It was a scratchy, rough canvas cotton. It went all the way to the floor and it was completely straight - no flare - so that when I put it on I literally couldn't walk. I shuffled on the smooth soles of my Mary Janes. I remember ripping a long slit up the back of it so I could move. This photo is in my childhood photo album with the caption "pretty girl." Guess who wrote the caption? I did. In my 20s when I was going through the album. I wrote it without irony then.

As I've reconnect with anger, now, in my late 50s, I've observed how it is paired with terror and confusion. When a "no" arises from within me - when something doesn't feel right or I don't want it - I feel anger for an instant, perhaps. But almost immediately comes panic. How can I say no? I have to justify it. I have to construct a bullet-proof argument to support my objection. I need others to affirm my position before I can assert it. A voice inside says "why are you so angry?" Or "you don't have a right to be angry." Or "that's not worth getting angry at." Or "they won't understand." They'll just dislike me. Leave me. Anger is distasteful. It drives people away.

Or worse, that they will attack me. That's the most inhibiting belief of all - the belief that if I express anger I will be attacked. It runs deep, pre-verbal. It evokes mortal terror.

For a small child, losing attachment to her caregivers means death. She cannot survive without them. She needs not only their physical protection - to be fed, housed, clothed. She needs to feel emotionally connected to them, safe in their embrace. She needs to see her essential OK-ness mirrored in their eyes. I got that mirroring only if I was "good." The message? Do not be authentic on pain of death.

So anger - or a felt sense of "no" - triggers terror in me. if I acknowledge and express healthy anger - I will lose my connection with the people I love, need, want. I will be hurt. That was my experience.

The flip side, however, is that anger is also our life energy. It's our power. Without the capacity to say a clear no, we cannot authentically say yes. Yes to power. Yes to pleasure, yes to joy to aliveness.

So, as I start to lean into my "no" - without the need to justify it, to explain it, to craft an airtight legal case for why it is legitimate, and without worrying about how the other person might feel - it is thrilling. The energy of anger - of NO - is an arising energy. I comes from the core and rises up through the body to the arms - to say STOP - and the the voice - to say no. It brings the body upright, erect - into postures of strength and power.

When anger can be simple and calm it looks like the face of the young girl in the image at the top of this post. She's not agitated. She's not freaking out. She is just asserting her truth. No. Nope. Not ok with me. Not gonna happen. No is a complete sentence. My body feels calm. There is no terror as long as I let go of the idea that I have to justify it and explain it. As long as I let go of the fear that I will drive the other person away or be attacked. If my simple "no," my statement of a healthy boundary, drives the other person away, then so be it. That is not about me. It's about them.

Rage is what develops when that simpler anger is repressed, suppressed. Animals don't rage unless they are caged, leashed, or beaten. They snarl, they bark, they growl, they claw - but only until the threat has past and they have defended themselves. Then they go back to baseline. If you want to make a dog vicious, repress her ability to fight back. Tie her up or cage her. Deprive he of food or inflict pain on her. Then she will be aggressive, she will strike out without provocation. She will rage.

What are you not saying no to? When does your "no" trigger fear? When do you feel you can't say no without some kind of justification? When do you assume your no will be challenged, will be overcome by someone else more powerful? When do you not even FEEL it until long afterward, if at all? Healthy anger is essential to authentic existence. It's not ugly. It's not unfeminine. It's not threatening. It's not pathological. Let's reclaim it - simply, assertively, without drama or reactivity.

Just "no."


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