The Power of "No", or How To Love Yourself When You Don't Know What Love Is
Please note that this article has a medium-level trigger warning, as it speaks of non-specific abuse, neglect and depression. Consider yourself warned.
Lots of spiritual teachers will preach that inner peace and an end to suffering can be achieved through self-love, but let's face the fact that if you look around in your every day life, you won't find many people who fit that description. Even if you read all the articles on how to practice self-love and listen to experts on youtube for hours about how to change into the "higher form of yourself", some people cannot begin this way because they were actively taught through abuse and neglect how not to love themselves. For these people, much like the person I used to be, even the simple act of grooming and feeding ourselves can be an uphill battle. In these instances, articles and self-help books may not do the trick. When you've lived your entire life up until now without the concept of self-love and gratitude, where do you even begin?
Naturally, you begin at the beginning, though from a different starting point than others. Not a “lower” or “worse” starting point, but one unique to yourself. It's important to recognize that you will always be in a different stage of healing than the people around you, so looking at others for comparison will only discourage and slow you down. If you've been accustomed to putting others before yourself, this may be a challenge, but taking a moment to ground and remind yourself that you are walking your path of health and love at your own pace may help. Just the fact that you're reading this means you've chosen to walk this path, so that already puts you leagues ahead of the vast majority of people in your life- even if it doesn't feel like it.
Let's talk a bit about the habit of putting others before ourselves in an objective, analytical way. Understand that this is a coping mechanism to run from feeling worthless. If I don't feel like I have worth simply by existing, I will continuously feel the need to give of myself to others, being generous to a fault because at some point I've picked up the false notion that I only have value when I am in service to others. It doesn't come from a place of self-love, it comes from a place of emptiness, and a mentality of lack. What ends up happening is that givers attract takers, and people like us always end up being exploited and further abused. This is the all-too-common self-fulfilling prophecy of, "look, no matter what I do, I can't make people love me because I'm unlovable". This is much like suffering a head wound and instead of going to the hospital, you shoot yourself in the foot. It's honestly not your fault, you simply have never learned any other way to cope. But of course people like us blame ourselves for everything too, because like everything else, it's what we've been taught, and we can only do what we know.
Like many problems, the solution can be boiled down to a stunningly simple solution. When I look back on my own path to wellness and self-love, one of the first steps I took, and admittedly one of the hardest was utilizing a very simple technique: the word NO. It's funny that "no" is one of the first words we learn as a child but it ends up being the hardest word to use as an adult. Reintroducing that word into my vocabulary changed my life drastically. I'm not just saying that, it genuinely did and it really blew me out of the water. At first, the people who surrounded me and have never heard me say no to anything were shocked. A few of them got angry and even attempted to manipulate me into changing my mind. This is a tried and true method of ridding yourself of the takers in your own life. It will be extremely difficult and will probably make you feel like the only jerk, but try to stick to your guns if you can. There is nothing wrong with being selfish once in a while; with saving your money or taking time for yourself. For a start, you can try this for an hour, a day, or a week. I promise, the people who truly care for you will still be there afterwards.
The most powerful people in the world use the word "no" every day. It means, "I am actively choosing my own well being and comfort over your needs". Interactions with others is a constant negotiation, and they only have their own agendas in mind. If you don't have yours in mind as well, you are leaving yourself defenseless. It is your ability to say no that tells a person all they need to know about how much you value yourself and your boundaries. If you don't use it, you're advertising that they can get away with just about anything. Anyone that attempts to shame or rob you of your right to say no is only out to use you; that's why abusers will instill the belief in their victims that they no longer have the right to say no, and punish them when they try. How better to take control over an intended victim than to dismantle their entire defense system? It's insidious, but that's exactly what they've done. It's up to you to take back control. It will be difficult, but if I can do it, anyone can.
True power comes from the deep understanding of oneself; that is one of the great truths of life. It is only the weak that desire to control others, to make up for their lack of control over themselves. I have met people who have endured so much pain at the hands of their abusers that they couldn't even read the word, “abuse” without being triggered, let alone have the strength to look inward and face their veritable army of demons. Part of the path is understanding that it isn't about how fast or efficiently you get to some imaginary finish line. This isn't a race and efficiency isn't going to help you. Mistakes and stumbles are an important learning tool because they assist you in remembering all the lessons you'll be learning along the way.
The best advice I can give you at the start of this amazing journey is to practice saying "no", because to say "no" is to take back your power. However, allow me be clear because in no way, shape or form are you to try this while you are currently in an abusive situation. I will advise that you need to get yourself free of that first before you start your journey, because if you don't, you will be on a never-ending, Sisyphean hamster wheel of starting to get better, then being knocked back down again. That will not serve you at all. I know that people who say, "just leave" can never understand the emotional and financial obstacles you may face in doing so, as well as the fear that you'll possibly be chased, harmed or stalked. Know that there are services and people in your life willing to help you, even if you've distanced yourself, or are absolutely convinced you are alone.
I've gleaned many things from my journey so far, and I will impart two of them on you now.
- We are never, ever as alone as we think we are.
- Abusers are never as smart, strong or resourceful as they convince us they are.
Let that give you strength.
For those of us who have managed to get out, let the word, "no" be the vine that pulls you out of the quicksand. Let it be the sinew that patches up your still-bleeding psychological wounds. Let it sit on your tongue and dance on your lips like a sacred prayer. Brandish it in your time of need like a flaming sword. Say it to the people who you fear saying no to the most. Say it to your friends when they ask for favors and say it to your family when they ask for money. You should even try to say it when others impose their will on you and try to leave the option of saying no out of the equation.
Explanations aren't required, because saying "no" is your right, even when you've said "yes" to the same thing in the past. It will feel counter-intuitive, like stretching your leg when you get a Charlie Horse, but like everything else it takes practice. You may never get right with it. It may feel like your adrenaline is spiking as if you're about to get into a fight. It may feel gross and horrible like your skin is crawling. It may feel like you're going to cry, but you need to start saying it. Say it for yourself, so you can begin to choose yourself. You are allowed. You are worthy. It's either that or stay in this dark pit of hopelessness and despair for the rest of your life. Somehow that seems worse, doesn't it?
Always remember that real life begins where your comfort zone ends. It will not be easy, but my god, it will be worth it.
Thank you for reading, I hope it helped. Be well on your journey.
Deanne Victor doesn't have any actual journalism training or qualifications other than first-hand experience, her every day battle with bipolar disorder, a screwed up past and a genuine desire to help others defeat their mental illness and integrate their past traumas. Please excuse all grammar and spelling errors. This professional blogging thing requires some getting used to.
This is my first published article-- yay! I'm planning to write a whole slew of these, all more or less on this topic. I also have a ton of videos and other articles to suggest by amazing people that will hopefully help you the way they've helped me. But like, I think I have to get their permission to link it and stuff. So... WAY more to come so stay tuned!