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I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the word “no.”
No is a word that has great power in our lives and in our society. And yet, it’s one of the most challenging words in our vocabulary.
Every time I’ve heard “no” in my professional life, I’ve challenged myself to defy it. To go around it. I’ve used it as fuel to keep fighting — whether it’s in chasing a hard-to-get interview, or in proving to doctors and researchers that Alzheimer’s does indeed discriminate against women, even when they told me it doesn’t.
In fact, all of the "Architects of Change" we feature in this week’s edition of my Sunday Paper newsletter (click here to read more) have heard the word “no” at some point. Some have heard it from others, who told them that what they wanted to achieve could not be done. Others have said it themselves, declaring that one thing or another in our society is unacceptable, and that they won’t rest until they’ve done something to change it.
Jane Goodall pushed back when she was told, “No, silly girl. Chimps don’t have feelings.” Treger Strasberg said, “No, this abuse victim is not going to live in a shelter. I’m going to create a welcoming home for her and now hundreds of others.” My friend Devon Franklin has used the word “no” to stay focused on his personal path to success and also preaches how saying “no” can lead you to the right yes. I love that.
No is a word that, if you push past it, can propel you forward. It’s also a word that can empower you to take ownership over your life and define it by your own terms.
When I went to a retreat earlier this year, one of the lines that stuck with me the most was this: “For your yes to mean something, so must your no.”
No has power. No can mean something isn’t right for you. It can also mean, “I have a boundary and don’t you dare cross it.”
You have to be strong and confident to use your no. You have to be brave, just as so many women were this week when speaking out against a Hollywood power player. You have to believe in yourself against all odds, just as those who have come up against climate change naysayers and politics-as-usual have done. You have to never give up, even if you hear the word again and again. I was reminded of that this week when the women of Saudi Arabia earned the right to drive. They started fighting for that right in 1990 and were shunned for nearly three decades. Now, this month, they finally get to celebrate that the ban has ended.
No is a word that does not come easy to most people. I know it’s been hard for me at different times in my life. I’ve struggled to say no to my children at times. I’ve struggled to say no to worthy causes that have asked for my time. I’ve struggled to say no when I just didn’t want to go to a party or an event, but I did it anyway because I didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
But, over the years, I’ve come to realize how empowering the word “no” can be. It is a way to speak up. It is a way to speak out. We may feel vulnerable when we say it, but in doing so, we will feel liberated by speaking our truth. Thanks to various experiences and wise teachers, I’ve learned that embracing “no” makes my “yes” all the more meaningful.
So, if you are struggling with your no, allow yourself to start by using the word in small ways. (No, you can’t talk to me like that... No, that’s not what I said... No, unfortunately, I can’t make that...) Doing so will help you when you really have to put your foot down.
And, if you hear that two-letter word from someone else, remember to use it as fuel to change the world.
For more from Maria Shriver, sign up for her Sunday Paper newsletter.