Can you work late?
Will you do this for me?
Can you take over?
Just one more favor?
You’re going to fail!
Feel free to scream if you need to.
The word “no” – arguably the most powerful statement in any language – is a difficult one to utter when raised to believe it’s naughty. For many of us, our earliest memories are of being reprimanded with a sharp “NO!” , or perhaps you were chastised for daring to say it to a parent. I remember being terrified to say that word, as it was solely for the use of adults; there were very few circumstances which warranted my invocation of the phrase. Now, I’m ready to allow a rediscovery of my right to a word so steeped in psychological weight.
As a survivor, saying ‘no’ to someone takes on a different kind of gravity. You’re pulled toward saying it, or perhaps you did say it, but either way the no in your eyes, the word that escaped your body, was ignored. It’s validity was negated, the worth totally dried up. I learned that my right to refuse was inconsequential, that my words had no power. What other lesson could a kid learn in those circumstances?
Before I was abused, I was a rambunctious little girl with a streak of people-pleaser cutting down my core. I rushed around fighting to take care of my little brother and trying to be everyone’s assistant to prove that I was a good girl. After my life changed,
those habits morphed into something extreme. Where I had been happy about helping before, I became the kind of person who feared being useless. I desperately needed to be seen and valued. In hindsight it makes sense – in the only moment I wanted desperately to refuse, my entire life was unsettled, to say the least. What if worse could happen? Besides, with that experience as my baseline, there seemed to only be room for ‘yes’ when the situations wouldn’t kill me. I grew to believe saying yes to everything would keep me safe and loved and protected. I became so caught up in goodness that I struggled to stand up for myself in even the simplest situations, times where a ‘no’ wouldn’t have caused any trouble, but the ‘yes’ pulled me farther from myself. Eventually, I didn’t know who I was anymore without the approval.
In the quest to be our best selves, the ones our friends and family can rely on, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the desire to be everything to everyone else. Saying no can feel like a betrayal, a blow even, committed against those we care for. When the no’s start flowing, it seems like the love stops, but I’m learning that isn’t the case with people who deserve to be in your life. I spent years trying to make people happy by always being available, never turning down a favor, staying up all night to help, and giving everything I had without requesting anything back. Living that way didn’t win me any awards, and it certainly didn’t win me droves of friends who would do anything for me in return. Worst of all? I didn’t feel truly valued for me, but for what I could provide. In a way, I perpetuated the cycle of abuse on myself.
When the pain became enough of a motivator, I decided to change. Rather than being everything to everyone, I decided to be what I could, when I could within reason. No more extra hours, no more being a shoulder to people who never asked how I was, and definitely no more listening to people who put me down. I stopped feeling guilty for walking away when I realized how much lighter my soul felt. It lost me some connections, but growth always requires a little loss. Besides, what I’ve gained has been worth the discomfort. Now, instead of feeling exhausted and worthless, I feel so happy to have people and opportunities in my life that make waking up a joy. I don’t doubt my worth as often as before and that is thanks to the caliber of people who fill up my life. Best of all? They encourage me to utter than dangerous word as often as possible.
My journey back to reclaiming my voice is ever-changing and never easy. It might seem like I snap my fingers and have it all figured out, but that’s the illusion of the internet at play. There are days when I truly struggle to maintain the growth I’ve achieved over the years, days that make me wonder if the healing will ever last. When that voice creeps in – the one in us all that impedes progress – I tell it ‘no’.