Once upon a time it was not okay to say, “No, thank you.” Somewhere along the journey of life, my no was swallowed up by duty and obedience.I wonder if learning to say “No, thank you” to little things when I was young would have helped me to say “Hell, No!” to bigger things as I grew.
Checking over schoolwork in my classroom the other day, I came across a “thinking” question that was to be answered subjectively by a student. It was a “What would you do if?” question, designed to help a fourth grader think through a situation and make a wise choice.
The answer to an obvious moral dilemma written by one girl began, “I would say, No, thank you. Let’s. . .” She finished the scenario with a different choice that did not involve lying, cheating, stealing, or whatever negative behavior was being pressured.
I paused, reflecting on her words for a moment, remembering the girl inside of me who spent a lot of time in turmoil due to her inability to say, “No, thank you. Let’s. . .” From an early age, I do not remember being allowed to say no to basic things that I did not want to do.
I am not talking about issues of health or safety or running out into the road, but of what to wear or what to eat or what to do or not do with myself. I did not feel I had choices. Expressions of fear or insecurity were not acceptable. If I did manage a “No, thank you” I felt isolated and alone; rejected, rather than supported and encouraged for using my voice to speak my needs.
Often, my body said “No, thank you” for me. I would get sick to my stomach when I dared not say that I could not, or did not, want to do something. That was an acceptable no, because I had no control over it. Who can argue with nausea and fatigue and total body shut down?
This inability to say “No, thank you” conditioned me to not know when to say, “Yes, please.”
I find myself saying, “I can’t even imagine,” a lot these days. It is usually within the context of hearing or reading about someone else choosing something good or kind or fun for themselves as I flip over my day’s duty card. How can they even? I can’t even imagine!
I am growing curious about why I cannot imagine making choices that are good and kind for my heart and my life.
Why can I not even imagine? I wonder if it is, in part, due to my lost no. It takes a lot of energy to spend time figuring out how to avoid what one does not want to do, and make it appear that it is, in fact, perfectly fine to be living out of default mode.
I am on my way to reimagining.
I am learning to readjust my settings, taking them off of default. It takes work. A lot of work. It takes sacrifice and risk and brutal honesty to admit that I do not know how to adjust the settings of my life on my own. It takes coming face to face with myself and realizing that the issues do not reside outside of me, but within. My style of relating, how others experience me, these things are difficult, but necessary, to face.
Recently, one of my adult children shared how he experiences me when I engaged him in talking about and processing an upcoming season of international travel he is about to begin. What I thought was giving him freedom to say, “No, thank you” to hard and fast plans and feeling trapped by his choice, he perceived as smothering and stressful. His bottom line was, “Please stop engaging me and my travels this way. I am going to do this, and you are stressing me out whenever you say I don’t have to feel stuck going on this trip. I am going. I want to go. This is how I want to do it. This is my choice.”
This is where redemption lives. It inhabits those small spaces where my child’s, “No, thank you. I have heard enough. Please stop.” intersects with my “I hear you and because I felt I couldn’t say no at your age is why I am hitting this so hard, and I am sorry. Please forgive me.”
It is a painful, humbling, and rewarding journey. Some days I am not sure that I will make it to the next. In those moments, I purpose to tell myself, No, thank you. Let’s keep going.
Julie McClay lives in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley with her high school sweetheart (and husband of 24 years) and 5 of their 8 children. She is learning that while it can be painful to face the past honestly while living in the moment and looking towards the future, it can be healing and lead to the hope of a brighter future. She digs through these thoughts and feelings here.