I was a girl who, like many of us, was not empowered to speak up. I wasn’t told I could say no, even when no was clearly the appropriate answer. Instead, I was encouraged to use words like yes and other pleasing responses like “I’m happy to,” and “Of course I will.”
I’ve come to understand that language impacts thought, and vice versa. Without owning the word no, and all the other language under what I like to think of as the “No Umbrella,” I was denying myself the conviction and power that comes with it.
As a teenager, feeling trapped by a set of life circumstances I’d essentially constructed with too many yeses, I ended up ignoring my best interests and acting out—saying no to myself.
I abused alcohol
, became sexually active before I was ready, and engaged in disordered eating
. My destructive behavior created a distance between me and others—not a healthy boundary, but the only kind of boundary I knew how to create at the time.
The fact that I couldn’t articulate my needs or even acknowledge them in the first place meant I was profoundly resigned, having decided somewhere along the way that I didn’t deserve to lead a happy
, healthy life.
How I Changed My “Yes” Habits
In my mid-20s, with the help of a therapist, I revisited that decision. I left an abusive marriage and began to see how my magnetic pull toward harm was related to a kind of self-destruction I’d internalized long before I’d met my husband. Since I was a child I had a nonstop inner voice telling me I was bad, useless and stupid
. I practiced being mindful
of that voice, noticing its volume, when it was on full blast, and when it was lurking around the corner, waiting to pounce.
Over time, I learned that I could integrate replacement language: word remedies, positive affirmations, compassionate journaling
. I began to destroy the old script and let go of that self-sabotaging voice within.
After internalizing a more positive view of myself, I started communicating my needs to others. My inner voice now speaks well of me, thus allowing me to treat myself well and request that others do the same. When I notice the critical voice rear its ugly head, I thank it for sharing rather than believe its lies.
I’ve learned that other people’s reactions to my expressing a need has nothing to do with me. I’m not shutting myself up anymore because “bad-useless-stupid" once told me my needs aren’t valid. I’m saying “No” to that voice and, in essence, I’m protecting myself under the “No Umbrella.”
Your Needs Need You
Practice paying attention to your needs. Identify, verbalize and honor them. Ask others to help you get them met. Your needs may be basic—hunger, thirst, tiredness. And they may be subtle—the need for a hug, acknowledgment, or time alone. Your needs are unique and they will vary day to day.
I’ve learned that if you have a traumatic history, it’s particularly important to practice tuning in to your needs on a regular basis. Your triggers can be both specific and general, some instantly transporting you back to a painful memory and others eliciting a vague sense of something just not feeling right. Again, awareness is key.
Tell people you trust about these triggers. If you’re dismissing your needs, then you may be reinforcing an old belief that somehow you deserved or even caused the traumatic experience.
Saying “no” and protecting yourself under the “No Umbrella” means more than just negating something with a one-syllable word. It means recognizing your boundaries and honoring your needs. It means saying “yes” to yourself.
Some prompts to help you practice
Carre Otis is authoring a book about women’s issues with writer and clinical psychologist, Sarah Spinner, Psy.D. This piece is an excerpt from their forthcoming book.
- Looking back, did anyone teach you about your right to say no?
- What lessons did you learn about boundaries, either explicitly or through watching the adults in your life?
- How comfortable are you with saying “no”? Are there certain areas in life where saying “no” is easier than others?
- How have you looked for validation, safety and love throughout your life? Can you identify healthy and unhealthy ways you’ve done this?
- Do you have any specific triggers related to past trauma? If so, what are they? How comfortable do you feel in tuning into these triggers and communicating them to others if necessary?
- If you’re in a relationship, how comfortable do you feel communicating your needs to your partner?
- If you’re single and looking, what needs will you have from a future partner?
- If you’re single and not looking, how can you honor your needs now, for yourself?
- In terms of communicating your needs to other people in your life, who do you have trouble doing this with? What makes it hard? Who do you find it easy to do this with? What makes it easy?
- Playful practice exercise: Sometimes our dreams help us tune in to unacknowledged needs as well as our wise intuition. Before bed, take a moment to jot down some questions or concerns you’d like your dream life to give answers to. As you fall asleep, tune into your deep intuition and see what your dreams reveal the next morning.