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.
No is both the tool and the barrier by which we establish and maintain the distinct perimeter of the self. No says, "This is who I am; this is what I value; this is what I will and will not do; this is how I will choose to act." We love others, give to others, cooperate with others, and please others, but we are, always and at the core, distinct and separate selves. We need No to carve and support that space.
No recognizes that we are the agents of our own limits. For most of us, this self-in-charge-and-wholly-responsible is a powerful, lonely, and very adult awareness. We approach it two steps forward and one giant retreat—giving in to the beloved, to the bully, to our own urges for another drink or an unnecessary purchase. The closer we get to manning the barricade of self-set limits, the stronger we are. That strength requires the power of No.
No has two faces: the one we turn toward ourselves and the one that creates boundaries between ourselves and others. The struggle to strengthen our internal No, the one we address to our own self-destructive impulses, is the struggle with which we are most familiar. That No controls our vent of rage on the road and our urge for the cigarette. We call that No "self-discipline."