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Why Even Strong Women Sometimes Have a Hard Time Saying No

One of the shortest words in the English language can be among the hardest to utter

posted by Suzanne Gerber, May 17, 2012 More by this author

woman extending hand out to stop

Suzanne Gerber is the editor of the Living & Learning channel for Next Avenue. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.


woman extending hand out to stop
iStockphoto | Thinkstock
It’s a truism that most women readily accept but that many men, especially our men, will disavow, disagree with and even deny. For as confident, opinionated and resolute as we can seem (and indeed often actually are), we as a sex can have a heck of a hard time saying no.

Even for the most stalwart women, there comes a moment when our inner resolve fails us, and one of the simplest sounds in the English language (n-o) comes out as “OK,” “sure,” “why not,” “all right,” “I suppose,” “if you really think so” — or just as a sigh of resignation.

Oh sure, we’ve all said it and have stood our ground at critical moments. Remarkably, we’ve turned down jobs, dates, pushy salesmen, recipe-chain-letter senders, offers to sell too low or buy too high, requests for donations to charities that fight truly awful diseases, needy friends, even homeless women with outstretched hands — and a dog.

More often than not, however, we don’t. Or, as gender and evolutionary psychologist Eva Glasrud says, we hedge. Hedging language softens the blow. Women aren’t weak or submissive, she explains; it’s just that when we do say no, everyone — both men and women — responds negatively.

“It's yet another example of the ‘double bind,’” Glasrud continues. “If you act in what society deems the ‘feminine’ way, you'll be punished by not sounding confident, professional and competent. If you act in what society sees as the ‘masculine’ way, you'll be punished for being overly assertive, bitchy, bossy, overwhelming, rude.”

As a woman who’s spent her whole life surrounded by exceedingly strong-willed men (and you know who you are), this is an issue I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with. As a child, learning to say no was a way to individuate from a father with boundary issues. Later, “no” became the battle cry of my teenage rebellion. It may have felt like power then, but in hindsight, I see it as just the next iteration of the terrible 2s. Until we realize what it is that we truly desire and are able to develop effective strategies for getting it, the next-best thing we can do is deny the things we don't want: a strong defense as opposed to a robust offense.

Only as I grew up, married a feisty Irishman and had a (feisty half-Irish) son did I begin to learn the real power of a well-timed and well-intoned no. Not a shout or a threat: just … no.

Like so many women when we reach a certain age, I started to care a whole lot less about what others thought of me and a whole lot more about what I thought of me. Being a people-pleaser and a hedger wasn’t making me happy. And, funny thing: I found the more I said no, the easier it got to both say it and stick to my guns when challenges arose.

Years after we divorced, my ex and I were having a pint and reflecting on our past when he said something that took me wholly by surprise: “You’re a strong woman.” I stared at him, unused to praise spoken in his voice. But before I could muster a reply, he added, “Thanks to me.”

He’s right. A decade of marriage to him forced me to find the will to say no — and it did make me stronger. It's true that we don't know how powerful we are until we are put to the test. Ten years of being repeatedly tested wasn't easy, and it certainly wasn't always fun, but in a weird way, I’m grateful for what it taught me.

Yet there’s one place that I still can’t quite pronounce that one syllable, and it happened again just the other week. I was sitting in a chair in my hair salon, in a black cape under harsh lighting. Examining long strands of my hair with the subtlest of a sneer, the stylist cocked her head and asked, “So, we’ll cut a couple inches and freshen up those highlights?”

I had come in determined to do nothing beyond a color touch-up. But when she told me how pretty some blending lowlights would look, all I could say was, “Sure, if you think so.”