No. A small but powerful word. Listening to it can make us feel like children; embarrassed or in trouble. How does saying “no” make you feel? Strong? Highly strung? Guilty? Do you say it often enough?
In July, when gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from most of her Olympics appearances, citing emotional exhaustion that was affecting her ability to perform, her “no” was lightning bolt. Reactions were largely supportive, but opinions were divided along political lines in the United States. White male sports experts (and, predictably the arrow of time, Piers Morgan) used the word “selfish.” It was a similar story when tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open in May, speaking of “long bouts of depression” and “huge waves of anxiety” before her pre-game and post-game press conferences.
For both women, after a lifetime of intensive training, in the eyes of the world, what was at stake was to say that it was not huge. But the message was clear: they were withdrawing from systems that might not protect them. A superstar athlete like Biles walking away from the world’s most revered sporting event to prioritize her state of mind felt culturally seismic, but remarkably simple. Why, if you are completely overwhelmed, shouldn’t you put the expectations of others second? Why should no one do it?
“The Olympics are emotionally draining,” says Steve Magness, Olympic track coach and performance scientist. “You spend years building towards a moment and you have an external pressure that manifests itself in an incredible internal pressure. I don’t think ordinary people get it. “Magness has spent a decade researching toughness, that is, our” deep misunderstanding “of what it really means.” The easy decision for Biles was to go ahead no matter what. You can always defend. ‘ try. ‘The difficult decision was to say no. “
For Magness, the root of strength is being clear about what you are capable of. “Tenacity consists of being aware of yourself to know where you are and if the path to follow is the right one. Think of the mountaineer, fighting for his goal, almost at the top of the mountain. They still have to maintain clarity on what they are capable of, since the difficulty is not getting to the top of the mountain, but going back down. In that example, the hardness is changing, even if the target is there. “
However, the word is also powerful for non-athletes. As psychological issues become more ingrained in our daily lexicon, “limits” has become a buzzword. But in our interpersonal relationships, defining personal boundaries can be problematic. “We live in a society that does not glorify one’s choice. It’s not an honor, ”says relationship therapist Nedra Tawwab, author of the recently published book Set Limits, Find Peace: A Guide to Recovery. “We constantly live in the mental space of others and not in the space of our own heart. We are thinking about what they might say or do; if they will get angry or if setting a limit will even end the relationship. “It is normal to worry,” but when your life is affected by not having healthy limits for you, we must pay attention, “says Tawwab.
“As a black woman, Biles has continued to endure so much without taking care of her needs,” says Tawwab, “but there are so many consequences to that ‘strong black woman’ narrative. U.S need be more selfish and defend our needs. For us to be okay, we must change the idea that talking makes us angry or insensitive. I’m happy to see people come out and say, ‘This is how I really feel and I can’t take it anymore,’ because I hope it inspires other women to do the same. ”
When there are hierarchies of power, as in the workplace, saying no can be particularly difficult. But as the boundaries between work and the rest of our lives have become increasingly blurred, thanks to more people working from home, it is even more vital. “Research tells us that people who proactively set their limits, such as leaving or leaving work on time, taking leave or prioritizing non-work related activities, are much better at managing their mental health,” he says Dr. Jo Yarker, occupational psychologist, researcher and Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck University, London.
Both Yarker and Tawwab suggest that practicing can help. “In any power difference relationship, it is often emotion that leads to a conversation about limitations, because we feel threatened or vulnerable. This is particularly true when we are exhausted or under a lot of pressure. But if we want action, we must be guided by logic and reason and with an understanding of the desired outcome. “It is not easy to just turn off emotions.” You can feel the emotion intensely, “says Yarker,” but prepare for conversations about limits. [she suggests practice and role-play] Clearly defining the factors you need to change, rather than simply saying you are overwhelmed, will help build the interaction on a more equal footing. “
Sometimes you don’t feel safe speaking out for fear of being rejected. But Yarker points out that it is the responsibility of management to create a culture in which employees feel heard. “The new Health and Safety executive management standards, formulated by the government to help employers manage the causes of work-related stress, states that organizations should adopt a preventive approach in terms of psychosocial risk [occupational hazards related to the way work is organised and managed], rather than just tackling it at a crisis point. ”Regular team checks where expectations are identified and managed can help, while each of us can individually reflect on what we need to thrive and ask for it.
Do we misuse the word selfish when people are clear about their needs? “I think so,” says Tawwab. “The definition I like is to give when you can and not to give when you can’t,” he says. “We need to think about what is really being damaged when we use that word. If I take a day off from work, it’s not the same as stealing someone’s credit. “The key is to practice saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’ in conversations as if we are learning a new skill.” We can start with small limits. like, ‘I’ll call you back,’ if we’re not ready to talk to someone at the time. With practice, trust is built. It can become easy. “
I was recently surprised when my new girlfriend asked me if we could “put a pin” on an emotional conversation about grief. With an even tone, she calmly set a boundary and I admired her for it. Our ability to set or receive a limit relates well to how we experienced them in our early relationships. “It’s no wonder that people who felt neglected or overlooked growing up can have a difficult time setting boundaries, due to an unconscious fear of abandonment,” says psychotherapist Ammanda Major, Relate’s head of clinical practice. “Similarly, if our caregivers had very few limits, it could be difficult for us to understand the right ones, because there is no plan. This applies to family dynamics, friendships, and colleagues, but particularly romantic relationships. “
But what if a partner, friend, or family member seems too limited? “This is a broad brushstroke, but when people are very limited or say not much, it may be because they fear that not keeping people at a distance will invite them into an emotional vulnerability that they fear,” says Major. “This can instill fear in the other person that they will get into trouble if they transgress and of going to an unhealthy place where one person says ‘reject’ and the other person is carefully trying to find their way through the gaps. . “
A popular joke goes: “Why did the narcissist cross the street? They thought it was a boundary. “The implication is that crossing other people’s boundaries is the realm of bastards without empathy. The problem is that what two people mean by the word” boundary “can be very different. Your partner doesn’t feel like your advice-giving mother-in-law is overdoing it. They may feel that responding to group WhatsApp messages over dinner is not respectful of their time together. ” Most of the people I have come across in therapy have felt that their needs are not being met. Some of those needs are around different boundaries, but when you delve into what they mean, other dynamics emerge, “says Major.” Ultimately, a key indicator of a healthy relationship is give and take. “
It may be difficult, but honesty is a position to fight for. For any human being, Olympian or not, learning to say cannot bring peace. And isn’t that something we all deserve?
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism