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  • Pam England

How Being Mentored in Saying “No” is Changing my Life

I recently participated in a workshop where the most profound learning took place in the break room. During a casual encounter, one of the facilitators stepped toward me, opened her arms wide in a gesture to give me a bear hug, in the gesture of two old college roommates discovering each other after years, or a greeter at a church wanting to make a visitor feel like the prodigal child welcomed home at last—to gain a new member and a donation in the basket. With teeth gleaming, she asked, “Can I have a hug?” and without listening for an answer or seeing me at all, she stepped further into my space. She neither waited for verbal consent, nor did she read my body language which expressed no interest. While my mind was saying “I don’t want to”—my body froze and I went mute. I just stood there and allowed myself to be engulfed by a hug that I did not want.

Just a week before the forced hug, I attended a personal growth group where members practice saying “No” when there is no “buy in” to whatever is being asked of them by another member. The person asking must accept “No” even if it is a non-verbal “No,” i.e., the person saying no is smiling or seems ambivalent. If it is not a whole body “YES!,” or if it is a “Maybe,” then it is a no. In addition, this practice includes learning not to take “No” personally by saying, “Thank you for taking care of yourself” (and to believe that thatis source of the other saying “No”).

Initially I felt indignation and resentment toward the workshop facilitator; this was soon followed by annoyance with myself because like so many times in my life, I did not honor my boundaries. As my mind studied the familiar problem, I suddenly experienced a piercing awareness that this did not happen tome; it wasIthat allowed this to happen. I pondered how it was possible that I had just practiced clearly saying “No” in the other group—where it seemed so doable from now on. And yet, not a week later in this casual, non-threatening encounter, I froze and went mute—again.

So, why was it so hard to say no to her?

And, why after a lifetime of not saying “no”

in so many situations, was I feeling a shift

after thisforced hug?

I considered four things that contributed to my pattern and long-awaited shift:

  1. Because the hugger was a facilitator, an “authority figure,” I reflexively followed old Rules seeded during formative years in my unconscious: “Be polite to the teacher,” “It won’t hurt you to be nice;” Don’t hurt someone’s feelings;” Don’t be rude.” Don’t be rude by saying “No” to Auntie when shewantsa hug, or to Uncle when he wantsyou to sit in his lap, and it went on from there.

  2. Like all children, I developed coping strategies to avoid conflict or punishment: One was self-talk, such as, “It’ll be okay,” “It’s not that big of a deal,” “Whatever, I’d rather not get punished, so go ahead.” These familiar phrases reach my brain faster than the newly practiced words, “No,” “Not now, maybe later,” “I don’t want to.”

  3. The ripple effect from the courage of Dr. Ford and many other women who, in finding their voice, are also empowering me, and countless others.

  4. Being mentored by an extraordinary woman who is skilled in leading groups through change work, and who models her ability to say both “No” and “Thank you for taking care of yourself.”

A life-myth begins to get interesting

when a deep discontent with one’s direction,

or even with one’s personality,


Sometimes this happens when you meet

a living example of a whole other possibility:

one of those enlightened beings. . .

—Coleman Banks

The Illuminated Rumi

The first part of change is recognizing patterns and motivations behind what we are unconsciously doing and not doing—and to do this diligently, with self-love, and without judgment against ourselves and those who unwittingly conditioned us. (Remembering that nobody chooses or escapes conditioning, every person on the planet is the product of conditioning).

And so, it was, just days after making new connections and showing up for myself in compassion, I was given another opportunity when an acquaintance forced a very enthusiastic hug I did not even see coming! For just seconds I was startled and annoyed, then I calmly stepped back and looking into his eyes, I said kindly that I did not like being hugged like that, and in the future, I would like to be asked first.

Lasting change comes to us through many small steps and changes.

On the surface, this moment was so simple and life-changing,

(but it took years to arrive).

Whatever we have been believing, doing, and saying since our formative years has made itself at home at the cellular level in our body and nervous system. These patterns serve us by creating reflexive behavior so we don’t have to stop and choose what to do in every situation. Changing those reflexive responses doesn’t happen instantly or permanently after a fleeting insight. When an insight that will eventually lead to the desired change has illuminated your whole being, there will still be residual memory in the body for a while. Shifting ingrained patterns and creating new neural pathways requires repeated practice.

Impatiently judging our own patterns, or the patterns of others,

does not motivate change; it’s just another learned pattern!

Sometimes change appears to be sudden, but more likely it follows many small adjustments in beliefs and assumptions that went unnoticed. Change comes slowly to me, no matter how much I want it; I suspect this is true for many others, too. As birth story listeners and childbirth mentors, may we find daily opportunities to make small steps in shifting our patterns as we grow in consciousness, patience, and compassion for others.

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