Many of you may not know, but once upon a time, I was an environmental policy analyst. I was then a high school history and civics teacher. I am a mother of twins.
I have spent a LOT of time saying no.
If I could calculate it, I suspect I have spent years of my life saying no in countless varied and creative ways. There are realms in which I, quite frankly, excel at saying no. Malcolm Gladwell says 10,000 hours brings mastery and I’m pretty sure I am a NO master if that is the criteria.
But here’s the interesting thing, my capacity for saying No has always been narrow and deep.
My music partner will tell you I easily reject music and musical opportunities. My husband will tell you I readily reject movies, books and other artistic expressions that don’t interest me or suit my taste. My children, well, that’s a long list, but still somewhat focused – on their health and well-being.
By contrast, there have been huge areas in which I have, at least until recently, been completely incapable of saying no.
- I was incapable of saying no to demands for my time from friends, family, tradition or obligation.
- I was unable to say no to suggestions about my professional career from people I respected.
- I was unable to say no when credit for my work was co-opted by my male colleagues while I worked for a government contractor.
- I was unwilling to say no to professions that drained me of my life force and made me feel terrible.
- I was incapable of saying no to old family stories about who I am and who I can ever be.
- I was unable to say no to my own impossible vision of motherhood.
During this time of failing to say No to so many fundamental things, I said yes, either directly or implicitly, to far too many things.
And my days grew full and tiring.
And my energy waned.
And my zest for life fizzled.
Years ago, a counselor I saw after a nearly fatal miscarriage asked what it would take for me to stop. What would it take for me to slow down, be more discerning about what’s necessary, put myself in the equation, take care of myself on a fundamental level? My sessions with her were short-lived. She had the right message, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. So, I didn’t. Instead:
- I trudged on in a degree program that I didn’t want to actually complete.
- I volunteered to be the matriarch for my in-laws.
- I organized people, things, events.
- I prided myself on holding impossible standards even as I felt the wound of failing to meet them so regularly.
Because that whole time, I thought I was saying YES to life.
I thought the more yes I could say, the more “good” I was being, the more “good I was doing.
It turns out I had my yeses and my nos all mixed up, and sorting that mess out took some real soul searching.
It took taking the time to identify the old family and personal narratives about my character – calling them out: “I see you. I hear you. But I think you are lying to me. I’m saying no to you”
It took getting really clear about what kinds of messages, what kinds of requests actually made my life feel fulfilling not just full. It took new tools. It took new perspectives. It took me learning to say yes to my own wisdom and to the truth of my heart and using that as my guide rather than the old storybook I had so carefully constructed. It took a lot of work, this shuffling of my responses to life.
Because I really want to say yes, a lot. But I want to say yes to the things that will nurture the best parts of me, that will help me to grow, and that will allow me to share whatever gifts that I might have with the people around me.
And so I want to show you a trick. And if you’re anything like I was, this may seem a little weird. But as a current expert on Yes and No, I’m going to ask that you bear with me.
If you are comfortable doing so, place your feel flat on the floor and close your eyes. For a moment I’d like you to just check in with your body. How do you feel physically? Any tension? Any discomfort? Just notice it but don’t linger on it. Deep breaths.
Now I want you to think about a moment in your life that was decidedly bad – don’t worry I won’t leave you here. Just think about it and then see how you feel in your body. Notice anything? Maybe upset in your stomach. Maybe tension in your throat or shoulders? Notice how it FEELS to you. Make a mental note that THIS sensation, this is NO.
Now shake your head or your hands and take a breath to clear away that memory. And now, think about one of the BEST moments you’ve ever had. Something that was truly great, with no lasting consequences or ill after-effects. Something that was clearly and unarguably good. Notice how THAT feels in your body. THIS my friends, this is yes. That scare-cited tingle in the chest, that feeling of expansion, that warmth in the belly and that relaxed open throat. THIS is yes.
THIS is what you want more of.
Maybe you’ve never noticed this information before. Maybe your yeses and nos have been distributed in a more rational way.
So, why turn to the body?
Because our brains get caught up in the story and get distracted by shiny objects. It’s not to say that our brains can’t be trusted at all, but other data sources can only help.
What I’ve learned is that using the guidance of my heart, and my BODY, I’ve been able to say YES to the experiences that I seem to deeply require. And I’ve been able to apply my NO to things that just don’t serve me, or, at least don’t serve me anymore.
As we part, I’d ask you to consider where you’re currently applying your YES and your NO. What story are you letting in? What heart evidence are you denying? Are you full but not fulfilled? Saying yes to life often means starting with a few Nos and then learning to utter a YES directly from your heart.