What can be one of the most difficult words in the English language to utter? It’s a word that can deaden our lips and tongue as surely as a visit to the dentist. It can have the most articulate of us fumbling and mumbling. It can bring grown-ups to tears to even imagine speaking. I’m talking about the dreaded word – “no”.
For many of us, especially women, it can be almost impossible to say no to anything (well, maybe a root canal, speaking of the dentist). For a variety of reasons many of us share the perspective that saying no to the umpteen bazillion requests made of us on a regular basis is somehow wrong or uncaring or hard-hearted or a refusal of the abundance the universe offers us. Or that, if we do say no, we will be unloved and therefor die a miserable death alone. (Ok, so maybe there are few steps to get there, but it is a slippery slope that, I’m sure at least unconsciously, most of us have slid right down more than once.)
There’s something, too, wiggling around in any conversation about what we say no to that has to do with our concept of boundaries (yet another dreaded word for many of us).
An image that has really helped me get some freedom, clarity and peace in the conundrum of choices that ends up in yes or no is that of seeing them as two sides of the same coin. They are impossible to separate. Every yes comes with a built in no, just as every no comes with a built in yes. It is when we imagine they live apart from each other that we get confused, overwhelmed, and left desperately trying to figure out the “boundary” question.
Here’s what I mean by yes and no being impossible to separate. When I say yes to getting up early in the morning to walk, I’m saying no to sleeping late or checking my email or a dozen other choices I could have made instead. When I say no to taking that awesome class, I’m saying yes to living within my budget or working in my garden. My no to your request for me for me to meet you for coffee tomorrow could be a yes to having more time to complete tasks I have already committed to. By saying no to a completely full daily schedule I’m saying yes to breathing time or to self reflection or to less stress. See how this works?
It’s perfectly understandable that we could be confused here, that we could think that yes and no are from completely different planets. For one thing our consumer culture wants us to believe that we can say yes to everything indefinitely without any kind of downside or no at all. Some of the most sophisticated mind manipulation techniques known to the human species are currently employed to convince us that the only response possible is an eager “yes!”. For the most part we live in an illusory world that worships constant, exponential growth that is outside of any cycle that includes “no”.
One way of looking at yes and no is to think of them like any other cycle that includes apparent opposites. Summer/winter, day/night, full moon/new moon, high tide/low tide, birth/death, growth/decay are all examples of other two-sided coins. They are inseparable parts of a whole, necessary aspects of a rhythm and a flow. Each is defined by the other in some way. As we have gotten away from a daily awareness of the natural cycles of life all around us, we have begun to think only one side of these coins has merit. We have begun to imagine we can do without the dark, down, decay, death, and “no” side of life. We can’t.
When we lived a little closer to the seasons and cycles, we were better at sensing the prevailing winds, too. By that I mean we didn’t just assume that the present moment was the right time for every single thing. We remembered that there are seasons and times that are better for different things. We weren’t expecting everything right now, like tomatoes in December (in the northern hemisphere). Now we can get summer foods any time of year, many businesses are open 24/7 (what a concept of constant “yes!”), and we are happiest when operating “on demand”. Not only are the seasons and cycles ignored, our own personal cycles are often seen as impediments to progress. There is a strong social message that you better not say a personal no to the global yes or you’ll get left way behind, maybe even voted off the team/island/planet.
We can also get confused about how to spend this yes/no coin because of our values. Many of us have values that are about being of service, or not giving up, being generous of ourselves, being loyal or any of a number of other deeply held stances for which saying no doesn’t seem to fit. If one of my core values is to work for the good of the whole, I may find that I just can’t say no to any request for my time by my favorite charity. That is if I think only of the no side of the coin. On the other side, when I say no to that need I am also saying yes to my family or my health or my job or to moving towards more balance in my life. Most of us have several core values, so the appearance of saying no to one is usually saying yes to another one. (One of the foundations of life coaching is awareness of personal values and how to live in alignment with them.)
By remembering the two sides of the coin we can stay aware of and dedicated to our priorities as well. In order to say yes to those things that are most important to us, we absolutely have to say no to many things that are not as important. If I really want to say yes to that creative project I will have to say no to many other possible ways of occupying my time. If I want to say yes to saving money, I may have to say no to all kinds of great deals and beautiful things.
It could be that our struggles with saying no are part of the down side of abundance. For the vast majority of us in this country at this time we have more of everything than most humans can even imagine. We have more stuff, more people we connect with, more food, more entertainment, more books, more music – we have more of every thing than we have the slightest idea of what to do with. It is imperative that we learn that all of what we say yes to comes with built in nos – and yet that can be one of the biggest challenges we face. With all of these awesome options we may have become addicted to yes. And who wouldn’t be? There is just so much delightfully wonderful abundance all around us.
Some of us are comfortable living in the land of all possibilities. It may be easier for us to live without ever committing to yes or no. And some of us say yes from the place of our highest and best dreams without understanding how to actually live the yes within the constraints of what we call “real” life.
Our inner critic, that voice inside of each of us with the constant message of “not good enough”, also wants to keep us confused about the yes/no connection. Whether the critic has us believe our not-good-enough-ness means we have to say yes to every class/request/need that might begin to make us more worthy or to say no to everything because we can never be good enough for it – either way it keeps us disconnected from knowing yes and no come back to back. And when we are disconnected we stay stuck – which is just where the inner critic wants us to be.
And then there are all the ways we get yes, no and love tangled up. Back to that slippery slope I talked about earlier, saying no or hearing no from someone else can, from one gut-level perspective, feel very much like not giving or receiving enough love. Could that be a hold over from our little two year old selves being told no for the first time? Could that have felt like we weren’t loved anymore and so every no we hear or say sends us right back there? When our parents were saying no to playing with sharp objects, they were saying yes to keeping our beautiful eyes functioning. When they were saying no to one more chocolate chip cookie, they were saying yes to …. You get the picture. We aren’t two years old any more, but our emotional response might be – if we stay stuck in the one-sidedness of no.
There is no place more tricky to realize the connection of yes and no than in the face of unending need. Many of my gorgeous and awesome clients are living their values and their passions in the world with heroic dedication. Some are working in non-profit organizations that are fiercely committed to compassion, healing, and living together in more life-affirming ways. Others have children with special needs or spouses facing their own heroic challenges or have their own exquisitely demanding health issues. For many of us who are fiercely living and giving from our core values it can be extremely difficult to imagine both sides of the yes/no coin. Our inner super hero is determinedly doing all she can to keep saying yes to meeting the challenges of the ceaseless need no matter what. This is part of the magnificence of human beings – that we will give of ourselves tirelessly when needed. We have honor and gratitude for those heroes among us.
Because we are humans we live with paradox or polarities. One polarity of heroic sacrifice is that when it is no longer a conscious and willing made choice, heroic sacrifice can become imposed martyrdom. What changes the choice from one of gift to one of entrapment is not knowing both sides of the coin and not having the inner freedom to say yes to our wholeness. Another consideration is the sustainability of our choices. Again, when we completely ignore, even if consciously, all that we are saying no to when we say yes in heroic ways, we may not be able to do so for long. The down cycle is, sooner or later, a part of all systems, as anyone who has experienced burn out knows. Being conscious of the yes/no coin may make it more likely for us to figure out how to be committed to both sacrifice and sustainability.
Let’s go a bit deeper here. What if we move the consideration of yes/no from that of scheduling, commitments, triggered responses, and heroic choices to one of inspiration? Inspiration means, according to Merriam Webster, “a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive or communicate sacred revelation; the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions”.
What if we made our choices based on what moves us, either from our own deeper thoughts and feelings or from a sense of our connection with the sacred? What if we knew that with every yes and no we can follow our inspiration, we can chose to remember who we really are, what we’re about and how we’re about it? With every yes/no choice we are deciding the direction of our lives. What would it be like to make our choices from inspiration, from our deep values, from sustainability as well as sacrifice, from an awareness of ebb as well as flow, without fear of being unloved or unworthy or out of sync? What would it be like to be really good at saying no to somethings in order to say yes to what we really want?
Good news! We all have plenty of opportunities to find out.