When No Means Maybe — Can the Introverted Empath Say No and Mean it?

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I was recently asked out by a male co-worker. It was one of those moments I kind of saw coming.

There was a warmth to our banter and casual hellos that felt comfortable — and an energy in the pauses between words that felt like a warm hug. To be honest, our connection made me nervous. It made me nervous perhaps, because the desires that lingered within it seemed at odds with each other. Within the hug-like energy there was an awkwardness. His “hug” felt like it was romantic and too close for comfort; mine felt friendly, comrade-like, and perhaps a bit too standoffish.

Connection is such a broad word. It speaks of moments where another sends you deeper into yourself. It speaks of silence between words and thoughts that feel like home. Connection isn’t something we necessarily do, rather, it is something we are. We are here, you and me, having this dance between these words I am writing on this page.

For the empath, the line between self and other is sometimes so thin that it feels like a veil of us.

For the introverted empath, another’s desires, the moment they arise, somehow feel like their own. A pause is needed to re-evaluate: What are my thoughts in this? What are my feelings? What are my desires?

Rewind to last week: as I enter my office, I see him in the corner of my eye and know he’s making his way towards me. I’m jittery. My nervous discomfort might seem like that nervousness of a school-girl crush, but it’s not. My lack of eye contact might seem like insecurity, but it’s not. I’m sensing what’s coming and I’m unsure of myself —ungrounded in my “no” — — because his desires rush through me as if they’re mine.

As he walks to the door, his arm resting casually against the frame, his head tilting towards me like a bow being prepped for the hunt, I feel pulled out of myself, and my own thoughts and feelings somehow become intertwined with his. In that moment, as the words of desire roll effortlessly, casually, longingly through his mouth, they pull me in like a magnet. My heart responds to the softness of their tone with a: Let me come by your office later and chat with you about this.

He smiles and struts away. He’s content. My sensitive self enjoys the fact that my response sent him a burst of good vibes and boosted his self confidence in the moment. My empathic, deep feeling self enjoys making others feel good —maybe too much so.

As he walks away, the dart of his desires sinks into my heart. I feel pierced. I jump up with a shudder and close the door. As soon as I close it, I start to cry. The tears that roll out of me come from that deep inner well that is old and unfiltered. The tears that roll through me pull me inward and wrap my thoughts in a swell of quiet — the quiet that mourning conjures up.

I’m left there, in that space, swirling in the word No! The word I couldn’t speak takes me over and hurls me into the oblivion of worshiping the day it became born into the mind that first spoke it. The word no reverberates through me and shakes me to the core

I never went to his office. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I won’t. I felt badly that I lied in the moment just to protect his feelings. I felt badly that the word I really wanted to say felt like a bully to my appeasing heart, pushing me into a corner where my true feelings felt suffocated and almost otherworldly.

When did No! become so intimidating to sensitive, introverted souls?

I processed the experience with my counseling supervisor, who asked me: “Did you say no?” I’m silent. “Have you ever said no?” I’m even more silent.

My supervisors question bellowed inside of like an uncomfortable gong over the weekend.

Have I ever said no?

As the question worked its way through my psyche, I went from sad to angry. Suddenly I am taking inventory of all of my past relationships, even some friendships, and as I did, I realized: I have NEVER said No!, have I? I have let others’ desire take me over all of my live-long life!

As I think this, I’m suddenly spinning in anger and frustration towards my quiet, sensitive self. Have you ever CHOSEN a relationship, Sarah? Have you really always let yourself succumb to the desires of others? Have you really always let yourself be CHOSEN, instead of mutually choosing another? These thoughts and more roamed around my brain, as uncomfortable as itchy wool to entertain, even for a short few moments. But, despite the discomfort, I entertained them for days, letting their itchy dryness wash through my pissed and grieving soul.

Empaths have to remember it’s okay to think: “Me too!”

The empath thrives off of making others feel good.

It’s true. We do. We like to make peoples suffering turn from sour to sweet in an instant.

After spending the weekend swimming with thoughts about when, if ever, I’ve said no to someone coming at me with their own desirous thoughts and feelings, memories of past lovers flooded my consciousness and pushed me into a fire pit of hot and bothersome thoughts. Is that all I desire? To make people feel good? Does that really and truly make me feel good?

When empaths find a healthy channel for their healing nature, they can thrive.

I’ve chosen professions where I can watch other people feel better about themselves. I think feel-good jobs are ideal for sensitive, empathic souls. In the therapy room, I love watching people learn to love themselves. In the yoga studio, when I’m teaching a class, it caresses my soul to see others find their true selves right in front of my eyes.

But in my dating and social life, I admit, my empathic, introverted self has a real problem being selfish.

For years I said yes when I really wanted to say, no thank you!

When did the word no become soul-crushing?

Or, for the empath, why does just vocalizing it feel soul-crushing?

As I processed my feelings, both present and past, I was reminded of the deep fear that was embodied in the word that almost feels as forbidden as Voldemort. That deep fear was causing an ending to a connection. I feared that saying No would be interpreted as a see ya later, leave me alone —bye-bye now, sayonara, all or nothing statement. It pushed me to question: where is the happy medium in the word no?

In my early 20s, my best friend's father would chat with me about spiritual wisdom, wooing me with words of people like Krishnamurti and Trungpa. I craved that wisdom and the mouth it was coming from was comfortable to me. But he wanted something more — he wanted something physical, something he wasn’t getting from his marriage. I was scared to say no —afraid I would lose him — and the wisdom he carried that comforted me as I grieved a major loss in my life — my sister’s sudden death. So I didn’t say no. Not saying no eventually resulted in a very deep loss — the loss, not only of him but my very best friend, his daughter.

Today I ask myself: What if I said no to my friend’s father all those years ago and set a firm boundary and what if he honored it? What if I said no and set that boundary and he didn’t honor it?

Why is it easier for us, as empaths, and also as introverts who take time and space to process things, desiring deep intimacy — to just give in?

Why is it so very hard — like wrestling with self in the muckiest of mud hard — to say No! and be okay with whatever that leads to?

I think empaths struggle because there is a possibility that the word no may result in disconnection and an ending of a relationship that feels oh so very sacred and nourishing to them on some level. We desperately want to connect with others in order to feel needed. We want so badly to be connected and to be needed that sometimes we maintain that connection at the expense of our own integrity.

Today, I’m still dancing with the desire to please and make others feel good, but with a new sway to the same old steps. The step I didn’t have all those years ago with my friend’s father was the ability to sit in the mucky, muddy, unclear waters and be okay with it. What I did then was run from, avoid, try to force change, and/or get angry at myself for what I felt.

I sit here now, feeling compassion for myself after sending an email to this coworker that I appreciated him reaching out, but do have a value that I leave work at work. This coworker responded that he understands that and perhaps it can be explored “in another situation.” Fuck, I said in my head as I read that. Did I leave that door open with my rather vague response? Do I need to be more clear or can I just be okay with the discomfort and leave it at that?

Being an introvert and an empath is perhaps both a blessing and a curse.

I am sensitive to what another feels, all empaths are. When I step away into my own space — which often means a private, quiet physical space — I start to get in touch with my personal desires. My desires for my coworker told me I wanted friendship— not romance. In the past, when I have expressed my desires in similar situations, sometimes the other person has communicated that they would be open to exploring friendship, but their energy towards me does not change.

Sometimes actions and energy speak louder than words. This perhaps can be the big “say no” quandary empaths feel, especially introverted empaths. Most often, an introvert will not be able to immediately vocalize what they feel, especially in the presence of another. The introvert needs time and space and sometimes a lot of it, to process and be able to vocalize their feelings in an authentic, self-honoring way. If they are forced to respond in the moment, it may often be an in-genuine, I want to please you response that they will later regret.

Perceiving NO in a new way:

Maybe it’s not about the word, but our perception of the word. Maybe “no” doesn’t have to mean dunzo, finis, adios, the end. Maybe we quiet, sensitive souls can re-frame it to mean: I’m not feeling congruent with what you’re feeling. I’m feeling x and you’re feeling z, maybe we can meet in the middle somewhere? Maybe is the keyword. Because sometimes we just can’t meet in the middle, but isn’t it better to know that at the start than to drag things along with yeses?

What shifting our perception will do is change the world. It will allow us to be honest — maybe not always in the moment, maybe after we’ve had time to ponder — but honest with ourselves nonetheless. What shifting our perception will do is foster more authenticity. Saying what our real self wants will reinforce our boundaries to the other person and they will have to choose to meet us there or walk away.

It can be challenging for sensitive, people-pleasing souls to state their desires, knowing they are out of alignment with the other person’s and may cause them hurt, no matter how kindly they are stated.

But what of a world where everyone is genuine and authentic in speaking their true heart’s desires with courage, kindness, respect and tact?

Authenticity does take strength and conscious effort. The effort, in my opinion, is worth it. We are all here to grow and learn from each other through the realm of personal relationships. Growth starts one heartfelt statement at a time.

At some point, we sensitive, introverted souls have to realize that what we feel is valid — and relevant — and enough. When we do, we foster respect from others and attract connections that are mutually supportive. Who doesn’t want to have relationships were each person's feelings are valued and respected? It takes ongoing work and lots of communication — and moments where the word no is needed and necessary.

I am still looking forward to that day when I can say no with pure self-awareness and self-knowing. My voice might be wavery, or it might be steady — as steady as a singing bowl reverberating from my deepest center. The tone of my voice, it won’t matter that day. What will matter will be the word, “No” coming from my mouth with pure alignment to my gut and my heart and my head. That day, the fact that I said, no and really meant it will be enough.

Written by

I write as a soul having a human experience. Former therapist, yoga instructor, and world traveler. www.sarahtheresalamb.com

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