I’m going through the terrible two’s. Not my child, me. I am learning to say ‘no’, and say it with ease and dignity. Some kind of essential differentiation is arising within me to facilitate this ‘no’—a clarity of where I start and stop, of who I am and what I want and don’t want. Something that perhaps was never permitted when I was myself two years old. Perhaps it was too inconvenient for my mother and father, or too confronting or inappropriate. I was supposed to be a good girl after all, and two’s are terrible, and girls must not be that. And so now, at 45, I’m finally learning what I should have learned 43 years ago.
Nothing like returning to one’s family of origin to provoke inner shifts. I recently spent time with my father’s family back in New Mexico. My father was celebrating his 85th birthday—his wife, my step mother, putting on a grand extravaganza, complete with aunts, uncles, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, students and worldly colleagues. Many of us coming from far away, it was to be the reunion of reunions. I looked forward to the event, imagining and hoping for—as I have since as long as I can remember—the possibility of heartfelt connections, sincere conversation and a sense of homecoming. The idea of family and belonging had worked itself into mythic proportions in my mind over the years, something that happens when such dreams are ever unrequited.
Something about the shear number of family members must have created a kind of tipping point, a veritable ‘perfect storm’ for my painful awakening to the reality of my family dynamics. My denial before then had been thick. Even my spiritual precepts had become tools to uphold the veil—compassion, love, seeing things from another’s perspective, loving what is, openness and nonjudgement. All these practices kept away a very painful truth about the people I loved, their habits of disrespect and covert hostility, and the way they treated me. As an adult, I just simply didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to experience the pain, despair and loneliness of it, and preferred over the years to scapegoat myself instead. It hurt to do this to myself, but it hurt less than feeling the real deal.
During my father’s birthday that evening, and after a series of rather confronting events, some inner clock ticked over—like the child of one year, 11 months and 30 days, when the lock tumblers line up and something just goes ‘click’. Fortunately I was in the good company of my beloved partner Wayne who honestly reflected the situation in a way that I could finally see it, in spite of how resistant I was at first. After some struggle, suddenly the spell broke. I saw, and said, ‘no’. No, I won’t be treated like this. No, I do not want to be in this family’s company. No, I don’t want to pretend I’m having fun. No, I’m tired of bending over, and making myself different in order to be loved. No, I no longer believe in the myth. I packed up my bags, and the bags of my children, and drove away.
Now to some, this may have looked on the outside, like a very immature thing to do. A two-year-old thing to do. But to someone who doesn’t say ‘no’ easily, being two is a sign of growing up. It’s a sign that some kind of differentiation is happening, and for many of us, women in particular, differentiation is a good thing. It’s a spiritual thing. An essential thing. That day, as I drove away from my father’s house, I drove down a new road, one that opened to an appreciation of the spiritual practice of saying ‘no’.
Many of us who have spent years living within some kind of spiritual understanding have tried to abide by certain codes that bring us back to centre, or sense of love and wholeness. We honour and try to live by concepts around openness, surrender and compassion. Suffering, we are told, is the result of our attachments and our desire to have it our way. The key to liberation is in letting go. The trouble is, these are concepts. And as what often happens with concepts, we live them through our own limited understanding. Often our unconscious takes the keys to our spiritual life, and drives it straight to hell.
For women this can be particularly true. Because so much of our collective psyche has been shaped around wounding of dominance and compliance, we tend to have confusion around the concepts that religion and spirituality espouse. Many of us have learned to leave our bodies through sexual trauma, and so the patriarchal spiritual concepts of transcendence is an easy place for us to reside. We forgo the wisdom of our bodies for some kind of disembodied ‘enlightenment’. We become push-overs for any kind of flimsy ideas…including the new age varieties of ‘being flexible’, ‘not creating dramas’, ‘letting go’, and ‘no resistance’. But in truth, often our ‘openness’ is just our masked fear of residing within our own skin, and claiming who we are. There is an existential aloneness to this. And for many of us, it can be terrifying.
If, for example, I have never learned about proper boundaries, as a girl and later as a woman (as so many of us have not), then when I try to live my spiritual idea of surrender, I will use it to continue my habit of personal disregard and lack of self definition. I might become involved with a sexually dysfunctional spiritual teacher (concepts of surrender are a real boon for those types), or continue a tedious career with an aggressive boss, over-function as a volunteer, or remain in energy-depleting friendships.
For women, I feel, our most rigorous spiritual work is in coming back into the body, in our incarnation, in feeling the boundaries and inclinations that come along with this body and beholding that they are inherently good and trustworthy. In this kind of work, other kinds of ideas are brought in to play: boundaries, exclusion, resistance, discernment and … No.
Mary Caroline Richards, author of the seminal book Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person, a contemplative questioning regarding the nature of art, wholeness, and our place in the cosmos, asserts the importance of antipathy. She acknowledges that for many years the importance of No evaded her. While the act of centring (either at the potter’s wheel or in life) is about bringing in, about saying ‘yes’ to all of existence, she says, there must also be a role for saying ‘no’. Centring with just a ‘yes’ makes for a one-sided act, an imbalanced pot. One also has to bring in the forces of resistance. ‘It would be the severest discipline for me to integrate the No, to reject, to judge. What was to become of love then, how about loving the enemy and doing good to those who revile us?’ she asks. ‘I “love” the tiger, but I do not put my head in its mouth. The hardest and most rewarding lesson has been to learn to experience antipathy objectively, with warmth.’
Culture loves a Yes man, and especially a Yes woman. Remember The Stepford Wives? People who please make for great slaves in the economic machine. People who are self-accountable are dangerous to the system, and scary for us personally. We don’t like to hear No. But if we’re honest, we feel safer with people who can say it. The costs of a Yes culture are many, from extinguishing our vital resources, to running us into the ground with exhaustion. Our inability to say No is also making us sick. In When The Body Says No, Dr Gabor Maté reveals clear links between serious, often terminal illnesses, and the psychological state of sufferers.
‘In over two decades of family medicine, including seven years of palliative care work, I was struck by how consistently the lives of people with chronic illness are characterised by emotional shut-down.’ Those suffering from chronic illness are incapable of considering their own emotional needs and driven by a compulsive sense of responsibility for the needs of others.’ Put simply these individuals all had difficulty saying no.
Besides being unhealthy, unspiritual and unpleasant to uphold, our inability to say No keeps us from meeting others with any real authenticity or kindness. Wayne Muller, in his soon to be released book A Life of Being, Having, Doing Enough (Crown / Random House) points out our habit of what he calls dishonest kindness. ‘There are two kinds of compassion and care,’ he writes. ‘One is honest kindness, and the other, dishonest kindnewss. How many times have we promised, or pretended to be avialable, to listen, to care, when, in that moment , we honestly had no such capacity? And do we imagine that dishonest kindness actually brings healing and ease to another–or do we seed unintended suffering?’
We have to some how pull back in, listen to our genuine authentic inner voice, and determine where we start and stop, who we are in any given moment, what our boundaries are. Just as spiritual traditions honour certain precepts, laws or commandments that guide us about how to live, says Muller, so must we gain clarity about our own ‘inner constitution’, those inner beliefs and principles, that guide us in each moment, what we are and are not willing to do.
How many times to we say ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’? What kind of permission do we need to give ourselves in order to start being more real with our No? How would our days begin to shape themselves if we said ‘no’ more often? And how rich and present might our kindness become, if it were more honest?
You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.