Friday, December 11, 2009

The Power of No

I was thinking about the word “no” the other day. That is, the no you use to set up boundaries … but then again, is there any other way to use it? No to more ice cream, no to unwelcome advances and no to I just don’t wanna moments. I especially love the NO that comes from toddlers. They are emphatic, making every letter count in that heavily invested word. (Of course I am not a mother of a two year old so I can say that with complete sincerity). Anyhow, without getting into the “no means no” campaign of unwelcome sexual advances, of which I stand behind 100%, I want to talk about the nos that are not so heavily invested. The nos that come from our codependent parts.

For years, when I would say no, a part of me, the codependent part that is, was really thinking, I am saying no but the truth is, I don’t really have the right to say no. In fact, that part of me would sometimes feel better when others didn’t honour my no. I was used to that response and hence it was more comfortable in a familiar sort of way. As a result, many people would unconsciously not respect my boundaries. I was sending out mixed messages.

I’ll give you an example: About 10 years ago, I worked for a bully. Well, she didn’t call herself a bully, her official title was manager but bully will do. I held what is called a casual part time job with some regular shifts and some optional on-call shifts. One day, after finishing my regular hours the bully called me into the office asking if I would work the next day. I said no. Although I didn’t say why, the fact was I hated the job, wasn’t desperate for money that week and was tired; no seemed appropriate. My boss didn’t accept it. She “made” me stay in her office while she looked for someone to fill the shift. The implicit threat was that if she couldn’t find someone else I would take the shift or be without a job. It was a most uncomfortable ten minutes listening to her phone the on-call list. She, glaring at me while looking for someone to work and me, hoping, praying, someone would come to my rescue. Thankfully, someone eventually did say yes and I was “free” to go.

An interesting scenario: the manager had no legal authority to hold me there; demand that I work; or fire me if I didn’t, but I stayed in her office out of some feeling that perhaps she did. My initial no meant nothing because I wasn’t backing myself up. It was a no with no substance. A part of me felt I had no rights, so instead of giving her an undeniable NO I sat waiting for another employee to come to my rescue. Worse, in retrospect, I know that if I had worked the shift, I would have later cached in with sympathy votes from my friends. I was the perfect codependent partner for my bully boss: she used me to feel powerful and hence valid in who she was; I used her to get social support, another form of validity.

To say no and mean it we have to fully believe in our right to be: the right to exist here and now in safety; to believe and feel what we want; to laugh, sing, dance, express anger and sadness; to love and to maintain the right to silence and personal space. When we feel the right to be we feel a validity in who we are. Without a belief in this intrinsic right, we end up looking towards others for validation. In the above story, neither my boss or I felt we had the intrinsic right to be. Unconsciously, my manager was relying on her power over me, to give her validity and I was relying on her to validate my victimhood, an unconscious way to get people to care for and love me.

Becoming conscious of our less than adamant nos is embarrassing when we first see our complicity. However all is not lost. Regardless of the past, when we do stand up and say no with all intent, people stand up and listen. Only the true abuser will attempt to tread over that sacred ground because they sense their power diminishing in the face of such conviction. When we say no and mean it we are assuring our codependent parts that we have every right to be. And with that assurance our power is unshakable.

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