Yes and I used to have a problem, 'yes' liked to sneak out and take the place of 'no', or 'maybe', or 'let me think about it'. Yes was friendly, agreeable and everyone liked it when it showed up, it was like a golden retriever puppy. But 'no', no one wanted my 'no'. 'No' never made people smile or happy or give them the impulse to pet you or give you a treat.
“Would you?” “Could you?” “Can you?” “Will you?” All of these perfectly innocent sentence prefixes would put me into a panic, the way some might panic at heights, small spaces or the news that a hive of bees had taken nest in their walls.
Very often after being asked, I knew the answer was anything but the affirmative no. “No, I don’t want to go.” “No, I don’t have the time.” “No, I would prefer to do anything else in the world than go to a hockey game.” “No, I really don’t have the time to do this huge favor for you.” “No, I would rather clean toilets than go to Nascar.” But I wanted to be nice and I didn’t want to hurt their feelings and so my voice would raise an octave or two to a tone that was unrecognizable to most humans, something between a dolphin squeak and a dog whistle, “Yes, I would love to!”, I would effuse. And then, just as soon as the insincere but seemingly nice yes had been uttered I would descend into a world of regret. I would, depending on how insincere my yes was, be consumed and possessed with “Why the hell did I say that?”
I would then go with one or two ways. Way #1 isn’t so embarrassing, way #2 is so awful and ego dystonic that I find myself dreading to write the sentence---so let me start with way #1. Way #1 was just dread, regret, and recrimination and self-attack for saying yes to something I didn’t really want. There are some yeses that I still, decades later, cringe at and have to watch how long I let myself review them, as they have the quality of a dangerous solar eclipse to my soul and if one looks at these types of “I should have said no” too long one can be blinded and see nothing but shame and soon are stuck in a dark world of shame and regret---I do not advise looking too long at regrets not spoken such as “No, I don’t want to go out with you and I most definitely don’t want to have sex with you.” The other way, Way #2, was, that I would say “yes” and then I would spend all my free time, giving up hobbies and sleep, trying to get out of the obligation. I would talk about it with friends, lovers, and therapists, “I said ‘yes’, now how to get out of it?” Then wise, mature and high-minded people would advise me, “Just tell them the truth.” That advice seemed absurd to me as: “You should definitely get a perm” or “It is probably best not to study for finals”, and “No, definitely don’t save for retirement--- just play the lottery.”
You see, I had somewhere gotten it into my noggin that to be good, kind, nice and affable was more important that answering the question honestly. I had learned that the way to be liked was to be accommodating. Wanting to be nice had me being nice to others and not so nice to me. And it never occurred to me that the cost of all this niceness, deception and insincerity was cruelty, self-harm and the antithesis of niceness to myself. But for so long I got the message from myself and a handful of others, that I didn’t matter that I just ignored the fact that all of this yes-ing was hurting me.
My therapist, Oprah, and all the self-help books I read continued to encourage me to speak my truth and that if my answer was 'no' that I should actually say it. It all made a certain amount of sense. But how? How does one say no? I remember hearing author Anne Lamott say, “'No' is a complete sentence.” I loved the concept that you could say no and that was enough. And some other wise person informed me that if I couldn’t say no then I never really could say yes, that both my yeses and noes were usually not real or authentic, I didn’t know what they meant and yet I liked it.
I know that “no” isn’t a difficult word to say, it is not like it is otorhinolaryngologist, it is just two simple little letters. However, it took time and effort to learn how to say 'no'. It took time for me to learn that I am allowed to say 'no' and that I can still be nice, liked, and loved. It still isn’t always easy for me, and unlike Anne Lamott, it is rarely a full sentence for me---I often need to say something to soften the ‘no’ blow. But I can tell you that for me learning to say ‘no’ was a major act of self-care and has been life-changing. I have even mastered the “I thought the answer was yes but on second thought my answer is no”, which is the graduate level of self-care, self-kindness and truth telling.
'No' and I have become friends, and even though I sometimes bristle when I know that someone wants a 'yes' from me and that I simply can’t give it to them. 'No' may not be a golden retriever, but it is a self-protective pal that protects me from guilt, self-harm, self-neglect and a fortnight of “why did I say that?”And for that I thank it and have a metaphorical Milk Bone with its name on it.