People are not taught how to say or to hear No with equanimity. And this leads to a lot of issues.

No is such an emotionally loaded word. I realized this while reading the news a few days ago. Nowadays, much energy is being dedicated to spreading awareness about sexual consent. This is happening all over the world, but especially in India, I see people express their frustration and bewilderment: “How is it such a difficult concept to grasp? Why can’t people understand that No means No?” I felt frustrated too for a while, and this feeling intensified after the release of the Bollywood movie Pink, which deals with the subject of sexual consent.

But when I thought a bit deeper, I realized that the difficulty isn’t isolated to the idea of sex; it springs out of a bigger dysfunction around the word ‘No’.

As kids, we are taught to be humble and polite, but these words are often misunderstood to mean obedience and servility. We’re “good” children if we obey, “bad” children if we don’t. Well, they might not say “bad”, but there are other words that are used — “headstrong”, “back-answering”, “rude”… So we are taught to be polite and humble, but in behaviour we are taught something akin to subservience and conformity.

The skill of saying No and hearing No is not only not taught to us, but the whole No concept gets fraught with uncomfortable emotional baggage. Many people struggle with saying No without feeling enormous guilt, and receiving a No without feeling rejected. What’s more, we aren’t taught to identify and feel our emotions, so we say No, and allow the guilt to turn into self-sabotage, or we hear a No and get angry at the one who refused us. All this without understanding why.

Is it any wonder then that we have trouble understanding the meaning of sexual consent? In it’s purest form, it just means the ability to say No and receive No and respecting that No.

Part of the issue is with how children are raised. When parents themselves struggle with their Nos and don’t have the self-awareness to recognize this as their issue, they either take it too personally when children don’t obey, or they cave in to every one of their demands, or they avoid a discussion on the subject altogether. Children learn these messages early on: “When I get older, when I become a parent, I can be authoritative and no one will question me.” Or “No one will say no to me, I will never face rejection of any kind.” And so the cycle continues. Unless one generation breaks it.

In some cultures it gets even more complicated. No gets deeply intertwined with notions of who’s elder and who’s younger, who should be respected and who need not be as much.


Assertiveness is a buzzword nowadays, but few really get it. I’ve had many clients come to me seeking help in learning to be more assertive. People who have been accustomed to be submissive for so long — that same unquestioning submission which is often hailed as a virtue, as obedience or even respect — that they mistake being assertive for being aggressive. They simply do not get what “firm and polite” means. Another part of the issue lies in the fact that if you haven’t encountered many people in your life who have role-modeled what it is to be assertive, then you have no idea what it looks like. At it’s core, assertiveness includes respecting yourself as well as others. It means treating others as you would treat yourself, as you would like to be treated. It is very closely connected to how much you love and accept yourself, your self-esteem. Many people mistakenly assume that aggressive people have high self-esteem. But in actuality both aggression and submission (or passive-aggression, for that matter) are symptoms of the same underlying issue — when I don’t respect myself enough, I am unable to give respect to others. So I either take to bullying others, or submit to other’s wishes over my own.

People who are learning to be assertive initially take it to mean that “I have the right to say No, and I’m just going to say No to anything and everything that I don’t like.” But, think about it, this approach hardly works most times. Assertion is not just learning to say No. In real life, there will be times when being assertive might not work, or might not be the best route.

Contrary to popular opinion, being assertive does not mean saying No to everything and insisting on your own way every time. Instead, it means being aware of your options and their probable consequences and making an informed, responsible choice. It means learning to choose your battles — depending on what’s at stake, you might want to stand your ground, or submit at times, and that’s OK, as long as you know that it was your choice. You do not get to blame anyone for it. And yes, there could be some situations where aggression may be needed too.


How do you get comfortable with No? Take time to understand how your society, culture, family and upbringing has shaped your reactions to No, and realize it need not be the case for the future if you don’t want it to. Then work on saying No and experiencing the emotions that come with it (not suppressing them). There are so many resources on assertiveness skills out there. Work with a therapist or a coach if need be, but keep at it. It’s a habit; you didn’t learn to respond the way you do now in a day, and it will certainly take time for you to break free of your No baggage. But it is so worth it.

Originally published at Please click on the green heart if you liked this piece, and leave me a comment!

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