Saying no is more than rejecting an invitation or request. Saying no is about avoiding people, places, and things that make you uncomfortable or are potentially harmful. The specifics differ for each of us, but some familiar scenarios include

  • Relationships with people who are takers and never give.
  • Letting people interrupt your work when you’re in the flow.
  • Listening to gossip to feel part of the group.
  • Staying in a job when you know it’s not your path, but you feel guilty when you think about leaving.
  • Eating food that’s detrimental to your health because you don’t want to inconvenience anyone.

Why is it hard to say no?

Perhaps you don’t have the skills to set boundaries or know the right words to say no and be heard. But you can learn them.

From my experience, the more significant challenge comes when someone is out of touch with her feelings and consequently doesn’t know what she wants. That was my primary obstacle to saying no. I had a difficult time understanding what I felt, so I didn’t know what I wanted or needed. Without that inner knowing, I couldn’t decide anything quickly, so I just said yes.

As infants and toddlers, we are immediately in tune with our feelings, and we express them spontaneously. We wail, we laugh, we grab, we pout… And eventually, we can associate those feelings with needs and wants. Pouting—No, I don’t like this. Grabbing—Yes, I want that. Laughing—I like you. Wailing—Pick me up and comfort me. 

Losing touch with my feelings

My parents did not have appropriate parenting skills. In fact, they yelled a lot to express disapproval. As a result, I was overtly obedient but brimming over with internal rebellion: a part of me was scared, but another part of me was indignant that someone was yelling at me instead of adoring me. On the one hand, I tried to disappear as much as possible to dodge punishment. On the other, I instinctively knew to keep my rebellious self (yes, she’s still very much with me and has a front-row seat today) under wraps. So you can probably understand why I didn’t speak up too often. And why no wasn’t an easy word to say.

Additionally, I had massive conflicts with my mother. She was uncomfortable with her feelings, so she not only squashed her own feelings, she also squashed mine. When I was really sad or upset, she couldn’t handle my emotions. Instead of comforting me, she told me I wasn’t feeling what I was feeling. I remember her words, “You’re not sad. There’s nothing to be sad about.” I couldn’t argue with her about feelings because feelings can’t be proved—I had no defense, no argument to make. And I would have lost that argument anyway.

I began to avoid my feelings—my mother was a diligent instructor. If I was feeling left out because I didn’t get invited to a party, and I was sad, or if I had a fight with my best friend, and I was mad, I wasn’t permitted to express those feelings. Finally, I forgot how to feel.

Without access to my feelings, I didn’t have any way of knowing what I wanted or needed in any particular situation. So if someone suggested something—a place to eat, a movie, a possible job—I didn’t know what to say. Usually, I just said yes because I had forgotten how to listen to what my heart was telling me.

Instead of feeling, I relied on my intellect to make decisions and navigate the variability of everyday life. I couldn’t feel much, but I could list the pros and cons about anything. But when I relied only on my left side of my brain, I missed important information that would have helped me make better decisions.

My change of heart

When I was thirty years old, I hit a wall. I realized I didn’t know what I was feeling. Forget the more subtle emotions—I’m talking basics here. Did I want to date this person? Dunno. Was I excited about the new job offer? Dunno. Did I want iced tea or hot tea? Dunno. What a train wreck!

Not knowing what I liked or didn’t like meant I agreed to things I didn’t really want, or that might have been harmful to me.

People who are in touch with their feelings can say no more quickly. They usually

  • Know what they want;
  • Prioritize and protect their time, money, and energy; and
  • Choose people, places, and things that support and enhance their lives.

Going from shutdown to waking up is scary. But I knew I had to find my way into those long-buried emotions before my words had a pathway out into the world. These were some of the life-changing practices that turned my life around:

  • Breathing. In Chinese medicine, the lungs hold our sadness and grief. At that time, I smoked cigarettes every day. I was unaware of how I was compounding my inability to touch my feelings by smoking. I quit smoking and started breathing.
  • Yoga. I practiced reliable, old-fashioned Hatha Yoga, with its slow poses and multiple breathing exercises. The yoga breathwork also opened me up to the sadness I didn’t want to feel. The poses – because they were slow and deliberate – allowed me to feel every stretch, every resistance, and every breakthrough. I was feeling my body in new and somewhat scary ways. When something was inappropriate for me, my gut said no—maybe I’d feel a twinge in my belly. Or maybe I’d get slightly congested. I started to appreciate the body’s wisdom and used it to guide me.
  • Meditation. Another practice was to slow down and make room for sensing the very beginning of a feeling before I turned away from it. I did this on my own, right in the moment. It was difficult because I didn’t have a coach or a teacher for this one.

These practices initiated the journey back to myself. Today, they are part of my morning practice so that I stay tuned in to my heart, mind, and body. They replenish me daily and contribute to my mindful awareness of my emotions. If I’m ever uncertain about what I want, where I need to be, who I bring into my life, and decisions where conscious discernment is required, I can rely on my feelings to guide me.

What practices keep you connected to your feelings, values, desires, and dreams? Please share them in the Comments section. Thanks!


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