women's ways of NOing
NO is a very simple word. One syllable. Two letters. A complete sentence. NO is one of the shortest words in the English language, yet one of the most difficult for women to say. We hear "NO!" in our heads while our mouths are saying "YES," "Sure," "I'd be glad to," "Of course I will," or "I wouldn't miss it for the world!" It's often easier to agree than to just say NO.
Saying NO for women can be a genuine struggle because of our deeply rooted need for connection. To be considerate without jeopardizing our well-being or livelihood, and assertive without losing the relationships we value these are two of life's most compelling challenges. Sometimes, out of a desire to be helpful or charitable, we choose to say YES even when it's difficult. At other times, we discover that we're too concerned about being liked, loved, or respected to be able to say NO. If we muster the courage to speak up, we tend to be cautious: "my answer is NO...if that's okay with you."
This book grew out of my realization that women's reluctance to say NO comes from traits that we should value empathy, sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and compassion rather than suppress, as we are often advised to do when saying NO. These traits are necessary elements of human connection and preservation. When I think back over my own life, I find that the paths I took to NO, however circuitous, often helped me grow. Like most women, I have sometimes held on too long to relationships that I knew I'd be better off without. But I would never trade a guillotine-style NO for what I learned through my unwillingness to let go.
The idea for this book emerged one morning when I was having breakfast with TV journalist and surgeon Nancy Snyderman, who told me about a former employee who had repeatedly asked for special favors. "First she asked for time off to get a haircut," Nancy said. "Then she needed to run errands." Even though the employee took advantage of Nancy's generosity, Nancy tried to accommodate these requests. Why? The employee was a single mom, and Nancy empathized with her situation.
I could certainly relate. I'd been despairing over a research collaboration that had gone sour. A colleague who'd volunteered to help with a major project had missed deadlines and dropped the ball on numerous occasions, always with a mile-long list of excuses health problems, dying relatives, car accidents, and the like. I couldn't think of a way to get tough without feeling like a completely insensitive jerk.
As a surgeon, Nancy is accustomed to making decisions with authority and conviction. Assertiveness is mandatory in life-and-death situations. My psychiatric specialty involves teaching patients about boundaries and limits. Role-playing how to say NO is a routine part of my clinical work. So, after thirty years in practice, I should be able to say NO when I need to, right?
Wrong. When I'm not with patients, I'm often reluctant to use the NO word because well, frankly I don't like to disappoint people. Is this a serious shortcoming? Many assertiveness training books say it is.
For most women the prospect of being less sensitive to the needs of others isn't appealing, even though attending to others' needs can result in personal sacrifice or hardship. We'd rather weigh the pros and cons of helping out, and struggle to find the best way to take care of ourselves as well as the many others who are dependent on us. That's how women's brains are wired: we have an aptitude for compassion and connection.
Why, then, do we get down on ourselves for not being more assertive? How can we avoid criticizing ourselves when we are bombarded with the message that there's something terribly wrong with the way we say NO? "Listen to your own needs," we're told. "Put yourself first." "Stop being a people pleaser." "Quit worrying about everyone else." This is advice that Daddy Warbucks parodies in Annie "You don't have to be nice to people on the way up if you don't plan to come back down."
But do we really need more self-centered people on this planet? Most women would never trade compassion for insensitivity. If women as a group became substantially less concerned about the general well-being of everyone around us, the consequences for children, the infirm, the disadvantaged, and the elderly would be disastrous! After all, where would we be without empathy? Or the generosity of spirit that sustains the planet and nurtures the soul?
Our strength as women is grounded in the ability to reach out and lend a helping hand. We consider the thoughts and feelings of others as we conduct our own lives. We can be firm when we need to be, though usually, we prefer to be kind. Saying NO can feel alienating, distancing, and harsh. It clashes with our belief in being generous. Very often it involves a loss. And dealing with loss is a recurrent challenge for most women.
Each of us is familiar with the experience of being told "NO." Throughout our lives we are denied things we want. We feel frustrated, sad, hurt, angry even heartbroken when we are refused. Sometimes the compassionate NOs are easier to swallow than the thoughtless NOs, or the brush-off NOs, or the how-dare-you-ask NOs, but in many cases, the experience of NO carries disappointment with it.
So when it's our turn to do the nay-saying, we are attuned to the feelings of the person asking, and we empathize with the pain of being turned down. Saying NO involves putting our own desires and needs above the wishes or expectations of others, which isn't always an easy thing to do. Some people become spiteful or rude when we don't give them what they want. Since being liked and appreciated is important to women, we're always on the lookout for the moment to say NO that has the least risk of incurring wrath or loss modeling our own NOs after those we find most helpful and considerate.
Even so, guilt-free NOs are hard to come by. In a life-or-death situation to protect a child, for instance "NO!" is instinctive. When operating from a clear sense of purpose or principle, setting a limit is easy. In other cases, however, saying NO involves sorting out your priorities, narrowing your focus, or sticking to a specific goal. Developing a set of ready-made responses gives you an edge on saying NO when you need to. Yet try as you might, there's no getting around the fact that your choices may deprive others of what they want. And it's always more difficult to set limits when you are conscious of others' hardships.
Just this morning Terry, a photographer, told me a story that illustrates this point. Several times a week, Terry drives to a senior housing complex to take Lulu, the beloved dog of an elderly man whose health is failing, out for a walk. Recently, Terry invited the gentleman to lunch. As he politely pushed the food around his plate, every now and then nibbling on a tiny morsel, the gentleman explained that he wasn't expected to live much longer and that he had no one to care for Lulu would Terry be willing to take the dog after he dies? Terry was in quandary about what to do. She couldn't keep the dog, but she didn't want to break the poor man's heart. I suggested that she offer to keep Lulu until she found a loving home for her. This solution worked for Terry. She told the gentleman that he could rest assured that Lulu would be well cared for.
One caution: when we lend a helping hand, let's not call that "co-dependency"! Caregiving is often devalued, trivialized, and pathologized by calling it "co- dependency." Kindness is NOT the same as being a doormat. There is a world of difference between being an enabler to an addict or an abusive partner, and being a considerate, compassionate individual.
In the chapters that follow I present the challenges we women have to face when saying NO to family, lovers, friends, employers, colleagues, subordinates, strangers, healthcare professionals, and even to people on their deathbeds. I examine why it's difficult to say NO, and I explain how the desire to connect and the fear of loss figure into our reluctance to set limits. I show how our goals, needs, values and life experiences influence our willingness to let go, and suggest creative ways to handle situations in which we feel stuck. I recommend ways to say NO that diminish the discomfort of disappointing others and give pointers on how to turn a knee-jerk YES into a consideration, and a consideration into a choice. And I explain how learning to deliver a knockout NO if you're assaulted may not only save your life, but empower you in other areas as well.
Along with examples from my own life, I have incorporated interviews with a diverse group of more than one hundred talented women whose stories capture the complexity of our efforts to set limits in a world that values simple assertiveness and cocksure NOs. These women reveal what saying NO means to them, and how the goal of maintaining connections with people who matter to them influences their ability to set limits. They describe how they learned to say NO, and how they struggle to be compassionate even as they enforce boundaries. Many of the stories are inspiring, some are funny, some sad, some deeply disturbing. All will help you understand better how and when you can say NO.
The women I interviewed share one important characteristic: each is very accomplished in her field. They differ in age, education, socioeconomic class, racial/ethnic background, and sexual orientation. Some are identified by their real names, others by a pseudonym. As this book will demonstrate, being powerful, savvy, or talented has little bearing on a woman's ability to say NO. Police chiefs, politicians, military officers, martial artists, judges, and CEOs all contend with the same issues. And having boundaries in one arena such as work may be unrelated to the ability to set limits with lovers, family, or friends.
Dip into this book anywhere you like. Pick a topic that's timely for you. Step into the shoes of other women as they describe their limit-setting dilemmas and achievements. Each chapter contains information that I hope will be relevant whenever you are struggling to say NO. At some point this book will speak to you, and you'll discover that you're not alone.
After reading this book, you will have a better understanding of your own reluctance to say NO. You will also learn how to say NO without losing the connections that you care about the most. I encourage you to value empathy but to use it selectively, taking pride when you choose to be generous. Above all, I hope that you will appreciate how a NO to one thing is often a YES to something else, as you enjoy the freedom that saying NO can bring. Copyright © 2008 by Nanette Gartrell, MD