A Convincing “No”

Fostering assertiveness in the complaisant

“He didn’t listen to me. He just didn’t get what I was trying to say.” She turned her face away from me, self-piteous and dejected. I reached my arms out and pulled her into an embrace. She grudgingly accepted a hug. Moments later, I felt my shoulder feel damp from her tears. I sighed. I understood her dispirited exasperation. Her father was hardly easy to convince or sway in an argument. During moments of opposition, you would need to stubbornly stand your ground, engage in a well-executed debate or raise your voice above his and push back, forcibly. It was not in her nature to do any of that. She retreats easily from confrontation, compromises readily to preserve peace, which she values supremely.

“You know what? Start today. Start saying no more often. Practice. Just say no, until people get that you really mean it. There’s little point in complaining that the other person didn’t listen to you, feel sorry for yourself and cry.” While she nodded obediently, it was apparent she was not entirely convinced. This conversation felt familiar. My mind drifted to a memory of her at the age of five. We had sessions of role-play at home; rehearsing dialogue to empower her with words to stave off the children at kindergarten from raiding her lunchbox. This reminded me of how overwhelmed and powerless she can feel during confrontation.

I looked into her watery eyes and repeated encouragingly, “Let’s start from today, ok? Start with me.” I made a promise from that day on to respect her “no”, even if was emitted with the lightness of a whisper. I would occasionally instruct her speak it louder, more convincingly; after all, she was already assured of her outcome and this was just a drill.

In the ensuing months, we spent time exploring how she felt when her wishes were not heard or respected at home. While she had initially thought she was ambivalent about most outcomes, this was not true. She gradually discovered more about herself, albeit upon reflection, that she had in fact felt more passionately about her viewpoint. During the post mortem of some incidents, the grave regret she felt, having allowed herself to give in or give up, made her recognise she did have strong preferences. This self-awareness has helped her uncover her stance on subjects and regulate the intensity of her response accordingly. As a family, we have grown to understand each other’s boundaries better.

Today when I hear her uncharacteristically roar “NO!” at her sisters without offering any reason or justification, I hear myself cheering her on in my heart. It’s a start. Equipped with self-awareness, home is a safe environment for us to spar, like boxers in a training gym. For if we cannot practice at home, how will we be ready for the big bad world?

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