We’ve all done it. Said “Yes” to something we did not want. Women probably more so than men. From childhood, we are programmed to please, whereas little boys are programmed to stand up for themselves. This was certainly true for my generation and, while I know that the women’s movement of the 70’s produced stronger women who produced stronger daughters, what is also true is that nasty little “pleasing gene” continues to raise its ugly head, even today.
The ability to say “No” is intrinsically linked to our level of self-worth. Historically, a woman’s worth was tied to that of her husband; i.e., had she made a good marriage and, if so, she had better keep her husband happy lest she be cast out into a society that offered little opportunity for women in general and even less for single women. While today new opportunities have opened up for us in every realm, with those have come the heavier responsibility of being true to ourselves while still trying to meet the needs of everyone else.
The inability to say “No” pervades not only our relationships with our significant others, but with friends, family, employers and even complete strangers. How many of us when dining out have been shown to a table we didn’t like, yet obediently took our seat there anyway? Such a small thing, but so telling. If we don’t feel we can say “No” to a hostess at IHOP, what chance do we have to make our desires known in other more important areas of our lives?
What exactly are we afraid of when we choose to submit to the will of another rather than claim our own good? I’m not talking about the norm of a give-and-take relationship or being civil or cooperative when circumstances call for such, but rather that tightening grip we feel in our chest when we know we’ve sold ourselves out – again. Do we fear that person will leave us? I recall as a child once giving my brand new box of Crayolas to another child who asked for them in the hope that she would be my friend. It lasted a day. Then she wanted more.
We are all taught to consider other people’s feelings, but few of us are taught to consider our own lest we be regarded as “selfish” or, in our adult years, a “bitch.” Our need to be liked by others all too often overrides our need to like ourselves, and the times when we do speak up for ourselves frequently leave us riddled with guilt, which then makes it even harder to say “No” the next time. Are these really our only choices? Saying “Yes” and living with regret or saying “No” and living with guilt?
The answer is a resounding, earth-shattering, trumpet-blaring NO! No one has the power to make us feel either one. Regret and guilt are devils of our own making and, as such, we hold the power to banish them.
“Regret,” in my view, is the worst. It makes you a victim. You won’t garner any points because you made a choice to stay late at work again to pick up a friend’s slack so they could to go home to dinner with their family because, after all, you’re single so how could you possibly have a life. Or agreeing to drive all the kids to soccer practice for the third week in a row when you were looking forward to getting your nails done because hubby had a golf date. And we all know how hard he works. Scenarios like these inevitably lead to one of two things. Your resentment builds such that the next time you’re asked to pass the salt by some poor unsuspecting soul you go off on him/her like The Incredible Hulk, or you wrap yourself in such a banner of self-pity that you end up creating resentment toward you by the very people you were so afraid of offending in the first place.
Instead, how about not saying “Yes” unless you truly mean it, and if you do choose to do something for another that perhaps you’d rather not, then see it as a gift to that person and do it with love or don’t do it at all. My mother had a great saying about people who do something for someone else and then complain about it: “It’s like the cow who gave a good bucket of milk then kicked it over.” That cow is now sitting atop a sesame seed bun.
As for “guilt,” we need to let go of our attachment to the outcome of saying “No.” We can’t control it anyway. If someone is going to be angry, sad, disappointed, whatever the response, that is their choice that they, and they alone, are making — most often to manipulate us into changing our mind or punish us by trying to make us feel, yes, guilty. But since, again, no one can make us feel that way except ourselves, why not instead see their actions for what they are and just refuse to take the bait. Do this often enough and others will see that they can no longer control us with their emotions and may even come to grudgingly respect us for finally starting to respect ourselves.
Self-respect is an interesting thing. Like a muscle, the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. And that is the power of “No.”