Even though it comprises no more than two letters and one syllable, ‘no’ ranks among the most punishing words in the English language. Contained in this very tiny word is a universe of potential meanings.
When we run away from the possibility of being told “no”, we are often running away from something entirely different. When we don’t ask out that hot stranger, we aren’t terrified of being told “no”, we are terrified of being told we are disgusting and unworthy. When we hold our tongue and don’t ask for a pay rise, we aren’t worried about being told “no”, we are worried about being told we aren’t actually good at what we do and thus, don’t deserve a pay rise. When we don’t ask our partners for more attention or to be kinder to us, we aren’t worried about being told “no”, we are worried about realising something we may have known all along, they don’t love us the way we need them to.
No’s come in many forms. When we tell a joke and others don’t laugh, the absence of laughter says to us ‘no, you aren’t funny’. When our dog doesn’t roll over or shake our hand on command, the rejection of our order says to us ‘you’re weak, you lack the power to even control an animal’. When we ask a friend to come out with us and they say “maybe”, they might not be saying ‘no’, but it still feels like they are. A ‘no’ feels the same as negation or as absence of affirmation.
While it is reductive to a significant extent, we are largely shaped by the forces of our childhood. Early conditions of a sapling will determine the shape and strength of the tree it becomes; similarly, our childhood affects the shape of our lives and the strength of our character.
If our childhood was characterised by emotionally unavailable parents, we suffer. We may have never been instilled with a faith in our inherent goodness so that today even the slightest rejection, like a “no”, becomes perceived as an existential threat. Or, we may have learned that acceptance means pleasing others and “no” signifies a failure to satisfy and get that thirst-quenching “yes”. Or, one day we asked for an expensive toy and our parents shouted “NO” at us and began to cry; we thought we were being a horrible child to our protector, little did we know about the money troubles at the time. They weren’t crying because they hated us, but because they couldn’t give us everything we ever wanted. We weren’t the failure, they felt like the failure. Looking back, we know that intellectually we weren’t failures, but it still feels that way, deep in our bones. The answer (or at least, the beginning of the answer) lies in interrogating our childhood and seeing how the feelings a ‘no’ today conjures are often remnants of undealt with circumstances in our pasts.
To survive, we are likely of falling into a pattern of avoiding any situation in which ‘no’ might arise. We narrow the possibilities of life by sticking the well-worn tracks of ‘yes’. While it may be more secure and satisfying (or rather, simply not unsatisfying), in the process, we retard our own creative development and chances for self-transcendence. By avoiding situations where we are told ‘no’, we avoid rejection, but we also miss out on opportunity.
We would do well to utilise this intellectual tool: when people say no, they do so because it doesn’t fit in with their plans. The hot stranger said ‘no’ not because they think you’re a disgusting freak; they have a partner. The animal didn’t refuse your command because you’re weak; they were distractedly focused on food. When your boss rejected your request for a raise, they didn’t say so because they think you’re a worthless employee; the business is struggling.
Think of all the times you’ve said ‘no’ to people without meaning they were sick, defected, or intolerable. You said “no” to the telemarketer because paying $50 a week for insurance on a boat you don’t own simply doesn’t fit in with your plan of saving money; and you said “no” to a friend who asked you to hang out, not because you think they’re boring, but because you already had plans to have dinner with your parents. You didn’t say “no” because you hated them, their requests simply didn’t fit in with your plans.
‘No’ is an incredibly powerful word, but we would do well to be slightly less narcissistic here. It really isn’t about you. People say ‘no’ for so many reasons, often having very little to do (if at all) with you. We would be well-served in keeping this thought at the back of our minds so that next time someone says ‘no’ to us, we can remind ourselves it isn’t because we are disgusting or defective or a failure; our request simply doesn’t fit in with their plans.