By Carré Otis with Sarah Spinner, Psy.D.

Just Saying “Yes”

I was a girl who, like many of us, was not empowered to speak up. I wasn’t encouraged to express my opinions, my wants or my needs. I was never told I could say no, even when no was clearly the appropriate answer. Instead, I was encouraged to use words like “yes” and other pleasing responses like “I’m happy to,” “of course I will,” and “let me help.”

I’ve come to understand that language impacts thought, and vice versa. Without owning the word “no,” and all the other language under what I like to think of as the “No Umbrella,” I was denying myself the conviction and power that comes with it. I hadn’t been taught to tune in to the wise part of myself, the intuitive part that always had the answers. No external guide and no inner compass — a dangerous combination.

Learning “No”

I became so confused and pissed off about my predicament, feeling trapped by a set of life circumstances I had essentially constructed with too many yeses, that I ended up ignoring my best interests and saying “no” to myself. At age 12 I began experimenting with alcohol, becoming sexually active and taking diet pills. My destructive behavior created a distance between me and others — not a healthy boundary, but the only kind of boundary I knew how to create at the time.

I wanted to feel loved and taken care of. But I associated my yearning for this basic emotional security with a feeling that seemed overwhelmingly scary — vulnerability. The fact that I couldn’t articulate my needs or even acknowledge them in the first place, meant that I was profoundly resigned, having decided somewhere along the way that I didn’t deserve to lead a happy, healthy life.

Changing My “Yes”-Habits

It’s not easy to change habits. But with awareness and discipline, it is possible. In my mid-20s, with the help of a therapist, I was able to leave an abusive marriage. I gradually began to see how my magnetic pull toward the infliction of harm by another had to do with a kind of self-destruction I’d internalized long before I’d met my husband. Since I was just a child I had a non-stop inner monologue, a voice telling me I was “bad, useless and stupid.” It was a constant effort to be mindful of that voice, to notice when it got louder and when it got softer, when it was on full blast and when it was lurking around the corner, waiting to pounce.

Over time I learned that I could respond to external triggers in a healthy way, rather than letting that critical inner voice run the show. I could integrate new words to replace the negative ones. These replacement words became my friends: word remedies, positive affirmations, compassionate journaling. I was beginning to destroy the old script and let go of that self-sabotaging voice within.

After doing enough work to develop my wise and empowering inner voice, after internalizing a more positive view of myself, I was able to start communicating my needs to others. My inner voice now speaks well of me, thus allowing me to treat myself well too. And I can request that other people do the same. When I notice the critical voice rear its ugly head, I thank it for sharing rather than believe its lies.

Listening to Me and Talking to Them

I’ve learned that other people’s reactions to my expressing a need has nothing to do with me. The point is, I’m not shutting myself up anymore because “bad-useless-stupid” once told me my needs aren’t valid. I’m saying “no” to that voice and, in essence, I’m protecting myself under the “No Umbrella.” I’m saying “yes” to myself.

Your Needs Need You

Life can be so much more than surviving or just getting by. Practice paying attention to your needs. Identify them. Verbalize them. Honor them. And ask others to help you get them met. Start by bringing awareness to your needs as they arise. They may be basic — hunger, thirst, the need to go to the bathroom. And they may be subtle — the need for a hug, acknowledgment, or time alone. Your needs are unique and they will vary day to day.

I’ve learned that if you have a traumatic history, it’s particularly important to practice tuning into your needs on a regular basis. You triggers can be both specific and general, some instantly transporting you back to a terribly painful memory and others eliciting a vague sense of something just not feeling right. Again, awareness is key. Tell your friends or your partner about these triggers when you’re ready to. Your well-being is priority number one, and if you’re dismissing your needs then you may be reinforcing an old belief that somehow you deserved or caused the traumatic experience.

Saying “no” and protecting yourself with the “No Umbrella” means more than just negating something with a one-syllable word. It means recognizing your boundaries and honoring your needs.

Practice Prompts

  • Looking back, did anyone teach you about your right to say “no”?
  • What lessons did you learn about boundaries, either explicitly or through watching the adults in your life?
  • How comfortable are you with saying “no”? Are there certain areas in life where saying “no” is easier than others?
  • How have you looked for validation, safety and love throughout your life? Can you identify healthy and unhealthy ways you’ve done this?
  • Do you have any specific triggers related to past trauma? If so, what are they? How comfortable do you feel in tuning into these triggers and communicating them to others if necessary?
  • If you’re in a relationship, how comfortable do you feel communicating your needs to your partner?
  • If you’re single and looking, what needs will you have from a future partner?
  • If you’re single and not looking, how can you honor your needs now, for yourself?
  • In terms of communicating your needs to other people in your life, who do you have trouble doing this with? What makes it hard? Who do you find it easy to do this with? What makes it easy?
  • Playful Practice Exercise: Sometimes our dreams help us tune in to unacknowledged needs as well as our wise intuition. Before bed, take a moment to jot down some questions or concerns you’d like your dream life to give answers to. As you fall asleep, tune into your deep intuition and see what your dreams reveal the next morning.

For more by Carre Otis, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.