A firm, clear, and direct no is a powerful self-defense tool. Unfortunately, saying no can be challenging, even in relatively comfortable situations. Saying no can bring up confusion, disappointment, fear, shame and many other emotional states that leave us susceptible to coercion — when someone disregards our no through threat or persistence.
A core principle of my approach to self-defense is to recognize that how we show up in our everyday lives informs how we will defend ourselves. If a person does not feel they have a right to say no, how comfortable would they be to push away or strike a potential threat? Striking is just the physical expression of the word no.
No informs our boundaries. In the clarity and completeness of no we define our edges and see ourselves as distinct and whole, apart from others. It is from this place of emotional safety that we are able to define our rules of engagement and invite in the connection we seek. If we aren’t able to say no, then we cannot truly say yes. By learning to recognize and fully honor our embodied no, and the feelings we experience with it, we protect ourselves from manipulation.
In both my Self-Defense for Women and Men’s Allyship workshops I lead an exercise designed to get us thinking about our conditioning around saying and hearing no. The following list was generated from workshop discussions about the reasons participants may have said yes when they really meant no:
1. We fear losing status, connection, or resources in retaliation for saying no.
2. We fear that our no will be met with violence or the threat of violence.
3. We have a conditioned belief that our no will be ignored based on a history of being silenced or violated.
4. We lack agency or (belief in our agency) and may not believe that we have a right to say no.
5. We want to be liked and don’t want to be perceived as being a bitch, a jerk, disruptive, or difficult.
6. We are coerced by a person who has power or authority over us.
7. We are pressured, manipulated, or deceived by someone we care about or by a group.
8. We feel compelled by a sense of obligation or guilt.
9. We’ve said yes to similar requests and feel unable to change our answer in the present moment.
10. We prioritize our perception that the other person will feel bad or rejected over our own needs.
11. We have trauma responses that block us from saying no or encourage us to fawn for approval by saying yes.
12. We feel that it will be safer or easier to to just go along with what is requested rather than say no.
It takes strength, courage, and clarity to say no. But we can make it easier by shifting our cultural narratives and practices around saying no. When we signal to our partners, friends, family, and co-workers that we value their no, that we will not take it as rejection and will not retaliate or pressure, we create a space for authentic connection and mutual respect to flourish.
The relevance of this list is indicative of a toxicity in our culture. We do not live in a culture organized around and prioritizing consent and respecting autonomy. We are in the midst of a culture shift, but the old values doggedly remain. It’s the hard sell from the overbearing salesperson that is incentivized not to take no for an answer and the romantic comedy trope of the average guy who “wins” the beautiful girlfriend by persistently ignoring her rejection of his advances. It’s no means yes. It’s a former vice president who makes jokes about invading the personal space of those he wields power and authority over.
It’s important when reading this list to not just reflect on times you may have said yes when you meant no, but to think about when people may have said yes to you when they really meant no. It’s important also to note that when someone says yes their body language and non-verbal signals may indicate the truth of their no. It’s not just about taking someone’s answer at face value but being willing to ask for clarity, to slow down and create spaces where we all feel safe to navigate ambiguity.
We shift the culture when we make the shift in ourselves. It can feel challenging to unpack our past experiences, especially if we’re the ones who pressured or dismissed a friend or partner’s no. These are opportunities for learning and growth. This is our pathway to consent-based communities, through the discomfort of deepening consciousness of our past behavior.
My personal journey with learning healthy, effective boundary and consent practices has been as rewarding as it is challenging. Being an instructor I feel an extra sense of responsibility to be more conscious of and willing to sit with my experiences and grow through them. The work can be hard but it is so completely worth it. This is my commitment to contributing to the kind of world I want to live in.
Jordan Giarratano is the curriculum designer and head instructor of Fighting Chance Seattle. He leads workshops on Self-Defense for Women and Men’s Allyship for individuals in Seattle and Onsite Workplace Training in self-defense, boundaries, and consent for businesses and organizations throughout the United States.