How many times a day do you say "yes" when you really mean "no"?
For example, you're standing in front of your boss who wants you to be available over the weekend for an emergency project, or to move up a deadline, or take the lead on a project that doesn't utilize your strengths. And, instead of politely declining or saying no, you smile through your discomfort and say, "Okay."
Or, your partner asks you to (or just expects you to) take care of finding gifts for their family members around birthdays and holidays, and you grit your teeth and do it.
Or, you want more time to take care of yourself (meditate, start a business) but you don't say "no" to your partner when they say they’re going out with their friends and you have to stay home (again) and take care of the kids.
Or, a family member or friend asks you to do them a favor, and even though you truly don't have the time, energy, or desire to do it, you say, "Sure, no problem."
And through it all, you're warding off exhaustion, overwhelm, frustration, and burnout.
Why is it that so many successful, intelligent women say "yes" when they mean "no"?
In part it’s because they haven't figured out what their authentic "yes" and "no" feel like – that is, what it feels like when you genuinely want to say yes to something, versus when you truly don't want to, regardless of others' expectations, societal norms, or any other external factors.
The other part, though, is that even those who DO know what their “no” feels like, they don't know how to work through their discomfort in expressing their true needs and wants, so they struggle to set and keep boundaries.
If any of that sounds familiar, then you also know that this can feel so frustrating because you often have too much to do and can’t find the time to truly take care of yourself. As a result, this can keep you feeling exhausted and with a depleted self-esteem.
The solution? Take back your power of "no" – your ability to know when something is truly a "no" for you and ability to express that no and hold that boundary.
Without being able to choose freely & say “yes” or “no” to something, you are not acting in true freedom.
In short, without your "no", you can't get to your authentic "yes". And maybe it’s not always about the word “yes” or “no”, but about saying what you mean. You might be negotiating your salary, and instead of stating the number you actually want, you ask for less.
Consider the impact of your saying “yes” when you mean “no”, of not saying what you mean, on your relationships: relationships not based on your truth, your authentic self and sincerity. Maybe you intend to be nice, but, in the long run, end up enabling, generating dependencies, misunderstandings, inauthentic relationships, etc.
And you don’t really want that, right?
Only if we can speak “no” is our “yes” truly sincere and authentic.
Women are conditioned not to feel their anger, to always try to be nice and polite, to smile and be sweet. If you never figure out what your authentic "yes" and "no" feel like, and how to get comfortable with your anger – and understand that your anger can be a helpful energy to actually carry out your “yes” and “no”, to stand for and live your desires – then you will always struggle with inner feelings of resentment and the doormat Dory-explosive Elsa polarity; that is, caught between swallowing your truth down and feeling like a doormat and then eventually, like a beachball pushed into water, exploding.
It's not always easy, though.
There are many reasons why it might be hard for you to own your power of “no”, particularly as a woman in this time in history.
Some of those reasons might be very personal, and some of them may be collective. Below I introduce some possibilities, but first I invite you to contemplate that we often know the theory or knowledge of what we “should” do (say “no”) – we “just” have to do it. But, let’s be honest: that’s often where we get stuck. Your power of “no” is the same: knowing what you should tell your boss or partner doesn’t always equate to you doing it. And, why not? Because change happens with something more than pure intellectual knowledge. Dealing with the root of the symptoms, you begin to make real changes in your life.
Here are some of the possible reasons it might be hard for you to say “no”:
Historical Reasons: An important historical benchmark of women’s oppression and the beginning of patriarchy as we know it in the Western World came slightly before the rise of Rome, when women were prohibited from participating in public life (running for public office, voting, in other words, to be involved beyond the sphere of the home).
Although our day-to-day status quo acts as if this inequality is over and that gender equality has been established, it suffices to take one look around and see the number of female vs. male presidents in the world, or the wage gap just to give two examples, to see this is not true, and we have a far ways to go. Most of us have grown up in the metaphorical fishbowl, immersed in the waters of patriarchy and female and feminine oppression.
Cultural Reasons: We live immersed in ideas about how we “should” behave to be considered “real women.” Example: “Behave”, “Act polite”, “Put on make-up”, “Smile, you don’t look pretty when you’re angry.” It all comes down to: “Be feminine, nice, quiet, and serve others.” We have to become conscious of who we really are, in essence, and how we want to live our lives.
Family of Origin Reasons: Maybe you watched your mother be a martyr about housework, complaining about doing the bulk of it, yet doing nothing to change her situation; maybe you’ve taken cues or inherited beliefs about the implicit roles of men and women, life, money, and more. Not only do inherited beliefs get passed on like this, but multi-generational trauma as well, which means that you carry the effects your ancestors experienced with war, oppression, persecution, addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, abuse, and so on.
For all of these reasons and more, we end up suppressing our instincts, our true emotions, and desires, overfunctioning (taking responsibility over more than what we would really want), resenting people and becoming doormats (victims) or getting fed up and sometimes even yelling & becoming victimizers.
So how do you learn to say "no"?
The RIFRA Method
RIFRA is a methodology I came up with to help you transform how you learn to speak up more!
Take out a journal or a sheet of paper and a pen. Take a moment to reflect on one situation in your life where you know you’ve been saying “yes” when you mean “no.” Use this one situation to go through the 5 steps of my RIFRA Method for yourself.
- Use the questions and prompts to explore the R-root cause of the situation. What other past situations does this remind you of? Maybe you saw it modeled somewhere in your life by one of your primary caregivers.
- Then, notice the I- Impact this one root situation has had on your life: have you been holding back because you have a limiting belief, for example, that that’s what “nice girls” behave like? Notice all of the times that you’ve inhibited yourself because of that one root. Over time, the cumulative effect of this one root may have a big cost!
- Next, allow yourself to F-Feel your feelings. This may sound easier than it is. For most women, as I’ve already shared (but it bears repeating), anger is the most avoided emotion. I encourage my clients to take up kickboxing or go for a run where they really let themselves have a physical release and feel the anger (not take it out against someone). You might want to rip up old magazines, wring towels, write an angry letter to someone you won’t send, or whatever works for you. Taking responsibility for our anger, alongside all of our other emotions, rather than suppressing the anger, by building channels of healthy expression of anger, almost guarantees radical improvement in so many situations and areas of your life. It is a key part of being able to say “no” when we mean “no”, rather than resenting our own “yes”. It is crucial in going from disempowered to empowered.
- R-Reflect on and review all of what you’ve been writing down. Decide if you would like to keep the old, limiting beliefs you subscribed to long ago, before you had choice, or if you would like to change these and act differently going forward. Does it serve you to think “nice girls always say “yes”? Does it serve you to believe it’s mean to say “no”? Does it serve you to believe that anger is not a “good emotion”? Or, would you rather begin believing that it is safe to trust yourself and your emotions, to listen to them? That it’s safe to trust your authentic desires, and that your anger is just a signal to pay attention and perhaps avoid a given situation or have a difficult conversation? Can you forgive yourself, your past (& whomever was in your past that modeled negative behaviors and beliefs) so that you can move forward today in a different direction?
- Last but not least, take A-Action, Empowered Action, on everything you’ve been deciding. If you’ve decided to have a difficult conversation, put it into action: schedule it in your calendar or call the person to set up a time. If you’ve decided to change a certain habit or behavior, decide one TINY way you can start to implement that change today, or how will you concretely know that behavior is changing.
My hope for you is that, after reading this, you're able to think twice about your answer next time you agree to do something and to see if you really want to do it. I'd love for you to reconsider your relationship with anger and see it more as a friend and ally on the path of empowerment. It just wants to be heard. We can change our relationship to anger.
And most importantly, my hope is that you become more empowered to accept and embrace the full spectrum of your feelings, and take even the smallest step toward honoring your authentic "yes" and "no."