Saying Yes to Saying No

Image: Jim Carrey as Carl in Yes Man (2008), Warner Bros. Pictures

The Era of “Yes”

I am embarrassed to admit it but I have a hard time saying no.

“Can you cook something up for the school bake sale?” Sure.

“Can you put in some extra hours after work?” Ummm, okay.

“Can you flip over backward and walk up the stairs while doing a handstand?” Well, maybe not but I can try.

Saying yes is an answer in the affirmative, and if an affirmation is “positive”, it MUST be a good thing, right?!

In the film Yes Man, Jim Carrey plays Carl Allen, a bachelor bank loan officer passed over for a promotion with no prospects for the future. After he attends a seminar, a self-help guru challenges Carl to say “yes” to everything in his life. Of course, with Jim Carrey as a vehicle, the movie gets out of hand rather quickly. Saying yes to every spam e-mail or giving money to anyone who asks for it may not always be the best idea.

All the same, Carl’s life starts to change. Saying yes, despite the mischief and mayhem it causes, gives him the emotional freedom to take risks. Before long, Carl no longer sees himself as a single loser. He becomes a promoted professional with a beautiful, if quirky, girlfriend on his arm. Saying yes offered him the adventure of a lifetime.

Yes Man is nothing new. The Law of Attraction, for years, has told us that you get in this world what you put into it. Say yes more and the universe will say yes back to you.

What could go wrong?

“No” Can Be Life-Affirming

If the Law of Attraction worked every time, I would be retired in Tahiti by now, writing novels on a sandy beach and donating the proceeds of those best-sellers to charities around the world.

Ah, always dream the dream!

The problem in my life is not saying yes. I say yes plenty, more than plenty, and maybe too much. My problem is I hesitate to say no, and I know I am not alone. The pressure to say yes is all around us.

  • Your boss asks you to take on an extra project. You say yes because you need to stay employed or, if you are more ambitious, you are hoping to move up in the company.
  • A family member asks you for a loan. You say yes because, if you have the money available, you feel obligated to give them a helping hand.
  • A teacher asks you to volunteer for a school function. You say yes because you feel guilty that your child could be the only one at the shindig without family there.

Some people find it hard to say no because they do not want to disappoint other people. That’s me! Maybe there is an altruism gene that pushes us to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. Maybe it coincides with a motherhood gene. I know that being a mom makes me do things for my children I would never do for anyone else.

The real questions to ask yourself are:

  • Will you find a fulfillment or accomplishment in the new work project? Will it engage you in a positive way
  • Saying no to a family loan now may make things awkward in the short-term, but will you be straining family relationships in the long-term by saying yes?
  • Is it better to save face with your child by volunteering on a random school project, or is it better to spend time with him in other thoughtful ways?

Saying yes to some things may close doors for other opportunities. Saying no, in some cases, may open up those doors. Simply put, if saying yes is not going to make YOU happy, if it is not going to fulfill YOU, you are really just saying no to yourself.

Facing Your Fears

The truth is that living a good life is not about saying yes or no to things. In the real world, for your own sanity, you need to be open to both. The trick is to understand why you reply the way you do.

Not everyone is honest with themselves. Some say yes or no automatically, taking the path of least resistance instead of accepting a challenge.

When I read Shonda Rhimes‘ The Year of Yes, I was inspired to take action. Sure, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy had opportunities at her doorstep that are simply not going to make an appearance for most of us. To say yes on the scale of Shonda would be a momentous occasion –delivering the commencement address at Dartmouth College or being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. But you can start to say yes to the little things and work your way up if you want to.

The trick is that, unlike Carl Allen, Shonda wasn’t blindly saying yes to everything. She took the year to look within herself to find out why she found herself saying no to so many things in her life. It turned out that her “no” often came from a place of fear. It was easier to fall into her comfort zone than to take uncomfortable risks, even if the reward was great. When she pushed herself to look past the fear, when she looked at the big picture, saying yes to certain things enriched her life.

You can do the same.

Saying no to things is okay. You do not need permission to say no. You do not need to explain yourself. You only have to know that it is right for you. Saying no because you are afraid, however, is denying yourself the life that you deserve. The best affirmation you can give yourself is to open yourself to positive change.

Handstands on the stairs?

I am going to have to say no on that one.