“No” is probably the most powerful word in our vocabulary. Anyone who’s ever raised a toddler understands how frustrating the word can be. It seems their “no” stage goes on forever and controls everything and everyone around them. It’s challenging, exhausting and can prick some unresolved, primitive conflicts within parents if they’re not conscious about their responses.
That one syllable word coming from the mouths of our sweet, little cherubs who are supposed to love, adore and follow our every command feels disturbing. When a child begins to say “no”, parents may perceive this as a power imbalance and grow threatened. “No” changes everything for those children (and parents) but not in a bad way. “No” for a toddler means she’s just beginning to understand she has choices over her life. She’s beginning to see she can decide what to wear, when to go potty (and where), what she likes to eat, how she likes to play and with what toys she wants to play with. No says, “backoff, I’ve got this”, even when she doesn’t.
In his psychosocial development model, Erick Erickson, refers to this “terrible twos stage” as the stage of Autonomy verses Shame and Doubt. When a toddler feels she can make choices, she begins to learn what she likes and dislikes. If she doesn’t have the opportunity to explore, she begins to question her preferences. She loses the ability to know what she wants and develops a sense of shame as a result. “No” for her can either hold clout or fear.
Sadly, lots of grownups are terrified to speak this word. Unlike toddlers who have the luxury of exploring their boundaries without too much understanding of their effect on others, grownups have been around the block a few times. “No” for some carries uncomfortable history. It may mean in the past people shunned them when they set boundaries, so they fear rejection. “No” might mean we’re really not sure anyway, so let’s keep things as a maybe. Then “no” carries a sense of shame and doubt about what we want and who we are. Not being able to say “no” indicates a constant sense of obligation to please others.
To say “no” takes personal power. Personal power means we’re tapped into our internal locus of control – we know where to set limits. We’re able to understand where our emotional and psychological boundaries are and how they might be different from others around us. We have a strong sense of what’s important to us and as a result know what we’re not willing to compromise. We understand how to set those restrictions and aren’t worried that we won’t be liked.
When this inner gauge is broken, “no” is perceived as a dangerous word. That’s because speaking the word states we’ve made a decision that may be separate from what others want. It also states we’re willing to take responsibility for our choices.
Jumping into the world of a solid decision thrusts us out of a state of avoidance. Just like the toddler, we’re saying, “I like this and not that.” It’s a definitive sign that we’ve made a clear choice. Once made, we’re required to follow through. In this way, “no” is the jumping off point to freedom. “No” preserves your own energy and shows people you have self-respect. It preserves identity.
“No” also decreases anxiety. It provides clarity. When people understand where the limits are, everyone can calm down. Setting that boundary not only provides distress tolerance for adults, but it teaches children they’re safe. The toddler who throws a temper tantrum in the store because he wants that toy is also attempting to see just how much he can push people around. When he realizes he doesn’t have full power over a situation, he can sit back and let go of the reins. When “no” is consistent with both firmness and kindness, that child learns that “no” is safe. Even better, he carries that lesson into adulthood where he can set his own limits against people who attempt to push him around. That child will grow up to understand his own inner locus of control.
People who are too involved in fixing people have little personal power. The act of stepping in to rescue is the act of taking choices away from someone else. To step back and say, “No, this is your job to do,” resets the power imbalance. It frees whomever they were controlling to make their own decisions. Each person reclaims their own power.
The flip side of this is “no” can be used to control everything. It can be the fortress we set against the world. When we feel so hapless and insecure that we have to stop everything, we’re not setting limits we’re walling ourselves off.
Sometimes “no” requires explaining. Sometimes not. Yet, the reason for “no” always needs to be understood by the person using the word. When the speaker is clear, the word holds truth. Personal truth is the way to individuation.
Mandala Artwork-CG Jung, The Red Book