Mind Matters—Be Direct and Celebrate the “No”

No matter how old we are, life and its concerns continue. I consult at a local retirement community where I meet with the residents individually.

An issue that arose recently for one grandly elegant eighty-nine-year-old woman has probably been her lifelong theme. And that is, how to be direct in asserting her desires, wishes, wants, even needs. Recently, she had been visiting her daughter and had wanted to go to church. I ask, “Did you ask, directly stating what you wanted?” “No.” she replied.

This woman is not alone in her avoidance of being direct in communicating with others. Most of us do this occasionally, but some of us do it per forma, almost as a given.

Early on in our childhoods perhaps we learned that we were not allowed to make requests or even to have a feeling. We may have been told, “You’re not angry!” even after we said we were. As we age, the shutdown not only of what we want to ask for but also of how we feel remains. When we shut down feelings, not only our mental health but our physical health gets affected. Shutdown of healthy expression of feelings is one big superhighway to stress. And stress is bio-physical. There is stress also when we don’t make our requests directly known. We may develop an attitude that others must mind read us, and when they don’t, we may get angry. But because we don’t express anger outright, with a healthy “I am angry about …,” we let the anger devolve into bitterness and resentment.

So if making a direct request is so important for our mental and physical health, why do we avoid it? Perhaps we are afraid to hear “No” just as much as we are afraid to say “No.” With either “no” is the fear of rejection and ultimately abandonment. If we play nice-nice and don’t ask, maybe we’ll get what we want and not be rejected.

How misguided we are! The mother of family therapy, Virginia Satir, used to talk about the congruent person. This is the person who could honestly acknowledge his/her feelings and express them healthily, with no harm to self or other. This is the person who could be direct in communication with another and make a request without fear of abandonment. This is the person who could also celebrate the “No” response as a sign that he/she made the request, and that directness is to be celebrated rather than avoided.

Of course, direct communication is best when it follows certain guidelines. In a Buddhist retreat, we were reminded that, for speech to be “right,” it must be true, necessary, said kindly, and at the proper time.

What does all this mean? I consider it to mean that we speak our own truth in a way that is respectful of the other and at a time when we are calm enough to be speaking without reactivity or malice. In other words, not in the heat of the moment, but in a “debriefing” time after the reflexive lizard brain has gone to rest, allowing the frontal cortex to speak with “heart in mind.” That’s congruence, whether we are nine or eighty-nine.