“I feel so guilty when I have to say ‘no’ to someone.” I hear this sentence regularly in my work with my female clients. They sometimes then say they believe it is because they have been conditioned by society to be kind, compliant, and to never upset anyone. I believe this to be true. Yet, I think there’s more to it.
I came across this quote and it struck me as quite profound.
“Why is the ‘no’ or ‘yes’ important? Because the ‘no’ is an expression of our power.” – Leslie Williamson
This statement made me think about how, as women, we are often uncomfortable with our own power. As if exerting our power somehow takes away from someone else’s. It seems we have this idea that if we are empowered, others must be disempowered.
Perhaps this is because of how we have seen power be used (misused, really) over the course of our lives. Think about it. Who in your life do you consider to be powerful? Very likely the people who come to mind are those who are in authority in one way or another. How to they use their power?
By making those around them feel small?
I’d argue that those approaches do not reflect true power at all. Truly powerful people do not feel the need to force themselves (literally or figuratively) onto others. They don’t need to manipulate people into bending to their will. They have no desire to make those around them feel small.
True power comes from knowing your genuine self, having a strong sense of your personal boundaries, and the willingness and ability to enforce your boundaries. This doesn’t have to be forceful. It doesn’t have to be rude.
It can actually be quite gracious and even a relief to others. I was blessed to have an amazing supervisor during my internship and residency. She had wonderful boundaries that she set and enforced with great kindness, compassion, and authenticity. And you know what? It never felt forceful or “mean”. It put me completely at ease. You know why? Because she said what she meant. I could trust that if she said yes, then it truly was okay with her. And if she said no, I knew where things stood and what I needed to do or not do.
One beautiful picture of how I see true power is described in this quote from Brené Brown: “Don’t shrink back. Don’t puff up. Just stand your sacred ground.” She also has stated that, “One of the most shocking findings of my work was the idea that the most compassionate people I have interviewed over the last 13 years, were also the absolutely most boundaried.” (Watch her further describe the connection between boundaries and empathy here.) And she described boundaries as simply, “what is okay, and what is not okay.” And when something is not okay, the compassionate boundary is that tiny word that some of us have tried so hard to avoid: “no”.
So the next time someone asks something of you and you’re tempted to say “yes” even though you want to say “no”, pause before answering and ask yourself whether you’re owning your power. And if you’re not, why?