We can’t say yes until we feel safe enough to say no.

In the last few months many of my clients have been probing for ways to access and deepen their sense of trust and connection in their intimate relationships. 

As I listen closely to their stories and personal experiences, a consistent theme continues to arise: we can’t affirm our external needs and desires until we first access our sacred internal boundaries of safety and trust. In other words, we can’t truly own our yes until we feel safe enough to say no. 

So many of us have become conditioned throughout our lives to orient our primary focus toward what others might need. We learn to dampen the expressions of our own needs in order not to rock the boat, so to speak. We adapt to find a sense of material satisfaction through  the number of ways we can please others while unconsciously turning a deaf ear to our own internal longing for a sense of deeper belonging. 

Whenever my clients share about their struggle to tune in to their own needs along with their tendency to hold back from expressing a boundary or communicating a desire, I instantly recall a profound lesson from my youth when my equine friends lovingly schooled me on finding my “no.” 

At 10 years old I was utterly enthralled with the way each horse in the herd authentically conveyed their needs and desires through clear non-verbal communication. For those who wanted more space around them as they grazed, they flattened their ears back against their necks, scrunched up their nostrils and narrowed their eyes to convey a very clear message: I want more room around me, please move along. When a rambunctious youngster approached looking for a playmate, an older adult horse who preferred a quieter energy would step away to show a lack of interest or turn it’s hips towards the youngster if the boundary wasn’t being properly acknowledged. Without holding a grudge or hurt feelings, I watched in awe as the youngster took in the message and wandered through the herd to find a younger playmate who matched their enthusiasm to stir up mischief.

While I was swept up in watching the herd communicate with one another, my exuberance had apparently compelled an inquisitive dark bay mare to approach me. Her warm soft muzzle sniffed my body with gentle huffs. She drew me into her expansive lungs where she explored the scent coming off my arms, legs and torso. She must have sensed from my heaving chest and rapidly beating heart that I was utterly delighted that she chose to bring her powerful presence so close to me. It was all I could do to contain my excitement and resist the temptation to wrap my slight frame around her. 

In that precise moment, I found myself paralyzed by the desire to avoid doing anything that might cause her to dislike me and move away. And yet, I felt simultaneously overwhelmed by her inextricable proximity, enormous size and immense strength against which I would have been utterly defenseless if she felt the need to attack or defend herself. I had no idea that the butterflies swirling out of formation inside my belly were signs that I was feeling a bit unsafe and my body was responding with a natural course of fight-or-flight readiness. In spite of the maelstrom brewing inside of me, I simply smiled and gently reached out to stroke her silky coat, reassuring myself–and her–of our safe connection. 

The mare began to step in even closer, nudging me firmly with her large boxy shaped head. Within a few short seconds she was using my bony ten year old frame as a personal scratching post. I took this as affirmation that she liked me after all and I began to laugh as she knocked me off center, causing me to stumble about to regain my footing.  Then, before I could see it coming, I was met with a sudden surprise. OUCH! She used her incisors to give me a firm nip on the arm. “What the heck was that for?” Just when I was starting to feel a playful connection, her actions made me feel inexplicably reprimanded for reasons my adolescent mind and heart could’t access or understand.

It would take me several more months of watching my cherished equine friends closely to realize what she was trying to tell me with her seemingly sudden nip of sternness. 

If I could translate her behavior into words it might sound something like this: I can’t feel you, I can’t feel the edges of what makes you, you. How am I supposed to be in a safe reciprocal friendship with you if I don’t know what your personal needs and boundaries are? Where are you? Until you tell me ‘no,’ I’m going to try and find your ‘no!’

It turns out that when we don’t feel safe enough to share our needs, preferences and desires, like my equine teacher, it’s hard for others to get a sense for how we want to connect. All too often I’ll hear a client say, I don’t really want to connect with other people. I can never be myself around them and then before I know it I’m completely lost in doing whatever they want me to do. I lose myself, I find myself pretending to be interested and then have to retreat to my own private space utterly exhausted. I’m better off keeping to myself.

It can feel like a big leap of faith when we are used to going along with others, keeping to ourselves and trying not to burden anyone with our needs. However, if we can summon the courage to clearly communicate when relationship interactions don’t feel good, right or safe, we may be in for a pleasant surprise. 

It turns out that when we are willing to communicate our personal boundaries with clarity and kindness it enables those with whom we are in a relationship to feel safe as well. Over time, that mare’s nip on my arm served as a reminder that communicating my needs and boundaries is not only okay, it is actually the key to forming healthy relationships. With practice and repetition, we can curate an unspoken language that conveys we are comfortable being honest and authentic with ourselves and others. 

Looking back at that ten-year-old memory when I stood between the fear of disappointing the mare and the fear of being crushed by her, I now realize that I was facing a singular fear of shame. Ashamed of my insecurities. Ashamed of my diminutive size. Ashamed to feel internal needs that took momentary precedence over others.

Notwithstanding the charm and sweetness of the above story from my youth, in reality, this process takes time. So please remember to be patient and gentle with yourself. When we take the time to learn how to express our own boundaries, we are simultaneously strengthening our self-advocacy skills while helping our friends and intimate partners develop their own internal means to listen, respond with kindness and do their best to attune to our needs. Through this loving practice of true reciprocity, we can cultivate an enormous sense of safety in our relationships.