Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
More harmful words were never spoken. Trauma research dispels the innocence of this myth. When someone says no, it means NO. Feeling entitled to continue to share information when someone says no is a violation. Especially when the sharing is an attack.
Verbal abuse and physical abuse share commonalities. While violating words and emotion aren’t overt physical assaults, they still affect us physically through the trauma they cause to our nervous system, to our brains, and our psyche generally. We feel verbal abuse physically even if we haven’t been physically touched, whether the attack comes hot and heavy or underhandedly.
There are times when it’s appropriate to find the psychic bandwidth to be humble and receive someone’s anger, such as when we’ve wronged them. This is to honor the hurt we’ve caused and the healing process of another to share their upset. Sometimes, however, we’re not able or ready to receive another’s emotion. We may be tired, stressed, hungry, overwhelmed with other stuff, or simply not have time.
Holding the boundary to share at a better time—and to have this pre-arranged, say, with your partner—is to honor and protect the relationship. It’s a form of wisdom, because perhaps we know that process work doesn’t go so well when we’re feeling compromised. For this, we can communicate our desire to hear the other at a better time. That said, sometimes sharing can’t wait and has to be done in the moment, such as during emergencies or urgencies. In these cases, do your best to regulate, listen, and respect.
When someone says no, it doesn’t matter what their reason is. You don’t get to decide if their no is “valid” or not, any more than you get to decide if touching someone who doesn’t want to be touched is valid. You have to stop. This can be tough while in the heat of being upset or feeling entitled to share what you want. And sometimes that entitlement (such as when we feel wronged) is warranted. But it still has to be accepted and welcomed by another. When we mess up, amends—if and when welcome—are in order.
If we are on the receiving end of someone saying no to our sharing, it’s easy to feel rejected. And we might feel our rejection and abandonment buttons pushed. This is our work to reconcile, not the person’s who told us no. Relationship 101 tells us our needs won’t be met all the time. The child in us doesn’t like this arrangement; the adult in us accepts it as a given. It’s a grace when our emotional needs are met in a relationship—when someone welcomes our true emotions, as skillfully as we can share them.
Being heard is important in any relationship. If someone close to you is never willing to hear you out, this is a different problem. For some, there is never a good time and place for your sharing to land. This is usually a sign of emotional unavailability. Ironically, such people often feel entitled and fine with sharing or dumping their emotional impact on us but not hearing or acknowledging anything in return. This is a form of narcissism, hypocrisy, and usually unreckoned, underlying wounding.
If someone can’t hear us, it’s not a prompt to force our way into their fortress. It’s time to a) find a different way or reframe how we communicate to get through, b) seek the advice of a friend or therapist, or c) consider ending the relationship when they don’t change and you’ve done all you can to get through and get closer.
Anger has its place for expression. So does blame, for the accountability it asks for. So does crying and breaking down in front of someone we love. All emotions have their place in relating, but must be skillfully shared, which means being emotionally intelligent about how, when, why, and where we do.
Being able to be vulnerable with another is key for intimacy and building a strong alliance. Without it, issues don’t get worked out and can lead to smoldering resentments that cause constant bickering, frustration, and passive-aggressive attacks. This is why good communication, which requires emotional wisdom, in relationships is so important. Such wisdom includes respecting another’s boundaries, even when we feel entitled to say something that’s unwelcome on the other end.
None of this is easy, especially in the heat of the moment, and it’s an imperfect science. But we can usually do better. Respecting a “no” is ultimately respecting yourself and the inviolable sovereignty of another.
Jack Adam Weber, L.Ac., M.A., is a Chinese medicine physician, having graduated valedictorian of his class in 2000. He has authored hundreds of articles, thousands of poems, and several books. Weber is an activist for embodied spirituality and writes extensively on the subjects of holistic medicine, emotional depth work, mind-body integration, and climate change, all the while challenging his readers to think and act outside the box. His latest creation is the Nourish Practice, a deeply restorative, embodied meditation practice as well as an educational guide for healing the wounds of childhood. His work can be found at jackadamweber.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter, where he can also be contacted for medical consultations and life-coaching. His new book on how to cope with climate change will be released in summer, 2020.