Is it scary to say "No"?

by Lea Seigen Shinraku

This post was inspired by Halloween, a holiday that offers children and adults the opportunity to connect with the more shadowy aspects of human experience. For some, it means acknowledging death, and honoring loved ones who have died. In more mainstream cultural expressions, death is portrayed in a sometimes campy way (with dancing skeletons and cartoon ghosts). Still, Halloween reminds us that impermanence is actually right here, interwoven with our day-to-day lives. It can be scary to let that truth fully register. Most of us are understandably attached to our lives as they are, including our sense of who we are.

On Halloween, you have the opportunity to experiment with shifting your identity through wearing a costume and, perhaps, embodying aspects of yourself that tend to feel scary or off-limits. Most people have an identity that they feel protective of; a way of being perceived that feels comfortable, familiar and safe. In many situations, you might avoid doing or saying something that could alter someone’s perception of you. For example, if you’re invested in being perceived as nice, kind and accommodating, you might find it difficult to set firm boundaries with other people and risk being perceived as mean, unkind and selfish.

This particular dilemma is familiar for me personally, and I’ve seen it in many of the people I work with. There are several explanations for how this struggle arises. For starters, it’s easy to get confused about what compassion is. Many people mistakenly believe that being compassionate means accepting whatever happens and never being in conflict or feeling angry.

I don’t find this to be the case. Genuine compassion requires discernment, which means that there will be times when what is true to someone else will not be true to you. And while you may acknowledge their point of view, you will not be able to agree with it. You may find that the only honest answer is “No,” and this is likely to disappoint the other person.

For many years, I felt particularly inspired by Quan Yin, the bodhisattva/goddess who is associated with compassion. Quan Yin is a receptive figure who is said to hear the cries of the world. Her compassion and capacity for meeting suffering is boundless. There was a time when I was deeply identified with being compassionate in this way and with being perceived as such. This receptive, accepting way of navigating the world served me well in many situations. It also helped me to feel safe, because when all you want to do is help, it’s hard for anyone to relate to you with anything but appreciation. However, this form of compassion isn’t always the appropriate response.

At the counseling center where I worked in graduate school, each therapist trainee did a phone shift where we conducted intake interviews and also completed a chore which helped keep the center tidy. However, in the first semester of my placement, I started to notice that a fellow trainee whose shift was before mine was not emptying the trash, which was his chore. At first, I related to this in what I felt was a compassionate way: I told myself that he was probably going through a stressful time, and that I would do his chore in addition to mine.

As the weeks continued, the trash bins were full each time I began my shift, and I started to feel irritated. Gradually, it dawned on me that my fellow trainee had not actually emptied them once since the semester began. One week, I reached my limit. I arrived for my shift, noticed the full trash bins, and I initiated what was, for me, a very difficult and scary conversation. I said something like, “The trash bins are full, and emptying them is your job. I’ve been doing it all semester, and I’m not going to do it anymore. It’s not fair.”

I didn’t know what was going to happen next. What would he say? I had broken what felt like an unspoken, fundamental rule of compassion: Be accommodating at all times. I had this eery feeling that I would be punished for the transgression. The strange thing was, though, he simply apologized and emptied the trash bins. And he continued to do it for the rest of the semester. It seemed so simple once I had the conversation.

A shift had begun. For Halloween that year, I dressed up as Vampire Barbie, complete with blond wig, rhinestone tiara, vampire teeth, and fake blood. This strikes me as a synchronistic choice: Vampire Barbie is about as far from Quan Yin as one can get. And I was experimenting with who I might be if I stepped out of the identity of being compassionate in a solely receptive and all-accepting way, and tried something else; something scarier yet also more honest. 

Since then, I’ve found room for a broader, more diverse understanding of compassion and what it can look like. Sometimes, receptivity and acceptance are the appropriate expressions of compassion. At other times, though, setting limits and boundaries and saying, “No” is the appropriate response. I once spoke about the relationship between boundaries and compassion with my zen teacher. He said, “Compassion has boundaries. It doesn’t work without them.” I’ve found this to be true.

If you have found it difficult to be flexible in the way you embody and express compassion, I invite you to experiment. What would it be like to try on something different, like a costume? Perhaps there’s a character in a movie, book, or TV show that embodies a more assertive way of being that feels challenging to you. It might be over-the-top, but that’s OK. See how it feels to let them inspire you to consider the possibility of setting a limit when you want to. You may find that there is more room than you thought for the parts of yourself that feel scary; the parts that want to say “No.”