There comes a moment when you say "Don't call me," and you finally mean it; when you return the charming gift because you forced yourself to acknowledge its invisible strings; when you turn down the friend's request for a helping hand, the colleague's plea for immediate advice, even the teenage son's expectation that dinner will appear before him—all because you have goals of your own from which you refuse to be deflected. Whether trivial or tormenting, each of these moments is an exercise in that poorly understood power, namely, the power of No.
There's a lot of talk, and a lot to be said, for the power of Yes. Yes supports risk-taking, courage, and an open-hearted approach to life whose grace cannot be minimized. But No—a metal grate that slams shut the window between one's self and the influence of others—is rarely celebrated. It's a hidden power because it is both easily misunderstood and difficult to engage.
It's likely that we are unaware of the surge of strength we draw from No because, in part, it is easily confused with negativity. Either can involve a turning away, a shake of the head, or a firm refusal. But they are distinctly different psychological states.
Negativity is a chronic attitude, a pair of emotional glasses through which some people get a cloudy view of the world. Negativity expresses itself in a whining perfectionism, a petulant discontent, or risk-averse naysaying. It's an energy sapper. Negative people may douse the enthusiasm of others, but rarely inspire them to action. Negativity certainly ensures that you will not be pleased. You will also not be powerful.
Where negativity is an ongoing attitude, No is a moment of clear choice. It announces, however indirectly, something affirmative about you. "I will not sign"—because that is not my truth. "I will not join your committee, help with your kids, review your project"—because I am committed to some important project of my own. "Count me out"—because I'm not comfortable, not in agreement, not on the bandwagon. "No, thank you"—because you might feel hurt if I turn down your invitation, but my needs take priority.
The No that is an affirmation of self implicitly acknowledges personal responsibility. It says that while each of us interacts with others, and loves, respects, and values those relationships, we do not and cannot allow ourselves always to be influenced by them. The strength we draw from saying No is that it underscores this hard truth of maturity: The buck stops here.