Empowerment Starts With “No”!

Of all the words in the English language, you might be surprised that the first, most empowering word for me as a woman is two simple letters: No! Learning to say no was a huge step in overcoming my internal good girl and claiming my boundaries as an adult woman.

One lesson women typically have a difficult time with is establishing boundaries. As little girls, most of us were never taught how to say, No, This is what I want. Think, for example, how Meg Ryan’s character in the movie When Harry Met Sally was treated when she asked for her salad or her pie a la mode just so. If people love you, that sort of behavior is endearing or cute, so long as it doesn’t embarrass anyone or cause them pain or inconvenience. Everyone else finds it really annoying.

Heaven forbid if we take up too much room or interrupt someone. We’re taught to get out of the way, serve everyone before ourselves, and to be mindful of other people’s feelings. Furthermore, we’re taught to treat others the way we want to be treated and they’ll notice and return the favor. No muss. No fuss. No risk. Right? In a perfect world, that may be true. But who lives in a perfect world?

Setting boundaries has been one of my major life lessons. Because I grew up in a happy, healthy family where we treated each other respectfully and kindly, I entered my adult life unskilled at standing my ground in moments of conflict. I never had my boundaries or principles violated until I was in my mid-20s and married. And it wasn’t until I started applying at work what I was learning in marital therapy that I truly understood how establishing boundaries and respect can be a problem for most women, no matter their backgrounds.

I also learned that as a woman steps fully into her personal power, she’s going to start taking up more space. Her boundaries are going to start expanding, and she’s going to have to protect those boundaries and establish new rules of standards for how she’s going to be treated. Some of us don’t have the language or skills to stick up for ourselves. As teenagers, we may have been able to say No in the back of a car, but as adults it’s hard to take a stand in our careers or in our personal relationships. We’re just not comfortable setting boundaries.

If this were written in the 1970s, I suppose learning to say no would have been considered assertiveness training. If you look up the word in the dictionary, its definition includes aggressiveness. But most American women know there’s a big difference. To be assertive is somehow okay, but goodness knows we should cross the line into aggressiveness. That would be terrible because it would make other people feel bad (or so we assumed). Because of the women’s movement, we gained responsibility for getting what we wanted, but we also had to do it in such a way that no one would object to our behavior. We had to do it according to a very precise code to which no one really knew the key.

If we acted in a manner less than ladylike, we still risked being marked as manipulative, conniving, or the other B word. Not many women have actually been called those things out loud, but we all worry about it. We are so afraid to risk a negative reaction that we choose not to take any action at all. And that’s where we lose our power!

Being able to say no in so many forms – from Let’s do it this way instead to That won’t work for me to a simple No, I don’t like that – is a huge, first step to being an empowered woman. Saying no doesn’t mean you’re being mean or hurting someone else. It means you’re taking care of yourself. Now, that’s something to know!

Copyright (c) 2006 Mary Foley