The Gift of Reclaiming Your “No!”

“Childhood sexual abuse teaches you to disregard your own internal sense of boundaries and to run you life by someone else’s rules…Regarding your body and soul, you are now the one who decides. You now have the first, middle, and last word on what you choose sexually.” Staci Haines, Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma

A few years ago, I attended a workshop at Harbin Hot Springs, with the theme of “Living at Choice.” During the workshop, the facilitators introduced an exercise I decided I didn’t want to do. I was paired with a sweet man who felt the same way, and we sat at the back of the room on pillows, chatting amiably while others participated. However, while I was proud of myself for respecting my comfort boundary, later on when people shared about their experience of the exercise, I began to feel left out—like I was no longer part of the group. This sense of disconnect grew throughout the rest of the day and left me feeling anxious and alone.

Late in the day on Sunday, I shared in large group, and I talked about how it had felt right to say “no” to participating in the exercise—and—how I also felt like I was no longer part of the group. After I said my piece, this lovely, compassionate man spoke to me—said: “Jane, in honoring your “no,” you are even more one of us. Your “no” is important, valued and respected here. Only through getting grounded in your “no” can you—or anyone else—ever trust your “yes.”

I will never forget that moment and how it affected me. I was stunned and sat down, sobbing—affirmed. This was the first time anyone ever explicitly told me that my “no” was valued and respected—and that my “yes” would be a valid, no-regrets “yes” only when I cultivated the firm ability to listen to my body’s cues and stand in my “no.”

It is hard to quantify the amount of healing that happened in that moment—because “no” isn’t an option given to sexual abuse survivors during acts of abuse, and without healing, many survivors do not learn how to claim an empowered “no” in the aftermath. Having my “no” restored and validated was potent medicine. As important, being able to stand firm in “no” isn’t just about sex: it applies to every aspect of life and relationships: if your “no” isn’t trustworthy, your “yes” is always suspect. Thus, this simple affirmation and the permission to say “no” began a shift that continued to propel me towards empowerment.

Where are you with “no?” Is it challenging to give a clear “no” when someone asks you to do something you really don’t want to do? Do you say “yes” when you are ambivalent, unsure—but simply not able to say “no” for whatever reason? What I’ve finally learned after many years of uncertainty is that the best gift I can give myself is to say “no” when I feel a “no” and that most people appreciate a clear “no” to a weak or ambivalent “yes.” When I am strong in my “no” then when I want to say “yes,” I can be a “hell yes!” How wonderful it is to finally trust my “yes!”