Recently I was visiting my brother in London who is having some renovations completed in his beautiful North London house. I found myself in a discussion with his painter who told me he also had outside job on the weekend. When I enquired how he had got on he replied, “I was two hours short of completing and I have no idea when I will find the time to finish.” In response to my curiosity about his schedule he told me he worked seven days a week. I expressed some surprise to which he observed that his challenge was he could never say no. “People are always changing jobs, adding jobs, wanting changes and I just keep saying yes and now I am in an impossible jam”.
I felt great compassion, as this is a common theme in the spiritual coaching work I do. Recently a client in Vancouver had trod in dog poop immediately prior to two sessions and I had been exploring the metaphor of trying to avoid something but stepping in it anyway. He commented, “It’s exactly what happened to me during the past week – twice! I had calls about two ‘shitty’ jobs. I could see they were both things I should say no to but despite protesting by the end of the conversation I had accepted them.”
I shared with the painter my perception that this inability to say no normally stems from some childhood pattern of compliance. We learn to put other’s needs before ourselves. We may become conflict avoidant. Saying yes makes us feel safe and we become unwitting members of what eminent author and Jungian analyst James Hollis refers to as “nice persons anonymous” This childhood coping mechanism unconsciously and insidiously begins to control our adult behaviour. We say yes when saying no would be in our own best interests.
I suggested to the painter that he might be concerned that people would be angry with him if he said no. He paused for a moment then said, “Wow – that made brought me close to tears; you just described exactly how I feel.” Clearly his inability to say no is connected with the past. Possibly someone in his early child hood had caused him to feel unsafe when he said no and this pattern of resistance now infused his current life.
There are many possibilities in how this resistance to saying no can emerge. My client in Vancouver told me that his stemmed from his days of being a nerdy teenager who was always the one left to last when captains were choosing teams. “I never got picked”, he explained so now if someone chooses him he always feels compelled to say yes.
A narcissistic parent or parents who feels their needs are always given priority over those of the children will invariably result in a child who focuses on the parents need’s rather than their own. They learn that the only right answer to a demand is yes. As Hollis observes in his insightful book Hauntings, “much of our life is governed by invisible presences.”
What to do? The first step is to own and acknowledge that your response is not totally within your control. Ask yourself if you have said yes to something recently that you wished in hindsight you had turned down. Then assess whether this was a reactive or measured response. If yes then welcome to “nice persons anonymous”. The journey begins here.
The first step in any healing process is awareness – without that you can go no further.
The second step is exploration. For now don’t try and change anything just begin to notice and record the number of times you instinctively say yes. Write them down. Recently in my spiritual guidance group I asked, “when did you last say yes when you should have said no and one person replied “at least once a week”. Sometimes change can begin just by bringing awareness to the issue.
The third step is to bring conscious attention to the moment and discern what was going on with your feelings and your body when you said yes. Frequently when I walk along the ocean I see a great blue heron demonstrating the art of perfect, still focus to the present moment. Bring your inner heron to the moment and describe the feelings, energy and your body.
The fourth step is an examination of this reflection to check your familiarity with the experience. Frequently you will be able to connect the dots. You will find the moment reminds you of past experiences. This is how my client perceived his unwanted nerdy teenage self was at the root of his acquiescence.
The final step is to begin to free yourself from being a hostage to the past. Using your new self-awareness learn to separate your response from the moment of reaction. Instead of saying yes, begin by taking a breath to expand the moment. If you still say yes, don’t beat yourself up; this is a journey toward change.
Then ask for some time – “can I get back to you on that”. Learn to avoid immediate reactions. Let go of the fear they will be mad with you. You did not come into this life to only take care of others, self-care is equally important.
Finally assess the response from the mature adult perspective. Does saying yes serve me?
What is my responsibility to the other? If you still say yes, know that you have made a conscious decision not a reactive one.
And remember as Tao master Lao Tzu said, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step”.
NB Some of you may not relate to this problem one jot, perhaps you like me may have a no as your reactive response. Stay tuned for the sequel – “what do to when you can’t say yes”.