So, let’s talk a little bit about yes and no conditioning. We’ve all been in those situations where someone catches you with your guard down, ‘Hey, you want to help me move/pretend you’re Santa/cat-sit while I’m out of town?’ In the moment, you gaze vacantly towards your thinking-spot ‘uhh…?’ Your brain goes into overdrive and pulsates with the mantra think of an excuse, think of an excuse. You look behind the person to see your partner/mother/best friend gritting their teeth with wide eyes, shrugging their shoulders emphatically. But all you can come up with is ‘uhhhhh, yes sure, sounds great!’ WHAT THE HELL, BRAIN?
Most of us have this response because we are told from a young age that apparently it’s not OK to cover our ears and yell LALALALA while we turn and run in the opposite direction. We can call this ‘yes and no conditioning’. Obviously, yes and no have positive and negative connotations for us. Yes, it is associated with the positive: new opportunities, happiness, challenges, development, fulfilment and growth. No is associated with the negative: arrogance, boredom, lack of fulfilment, inhibitions and stunted growth. Most of the time we are told that it is best to say yes and be open to all opportunities that this one little word can offer us. But how have we been conditioned to say yes, when what we really want and mean to say is no?
I once agreed to ‘help’ a friend create their art portfolio for an application. It wasn’t until I heard them in the other room on the phone that I realised I was essentially creating the portfolio for them – there was little ‘helping’ involved at all. But instead of stopping what I was doing and creating an excuse to leave, I continued working. Again, WHAT THE HELL, BRAIN? I was fuming at myself for being taken advantage of, but I couldn’t seem to stop. I tried to think about where I went wrong and at what point I should have told them I didn’t have the time to help when I realised; I had basically offered to do the work for them and I apparently wasn’t angry enough to stop. All I could think of in this situation was, ‘how is this my life?’
Maybe you’ve been in the same situation too. Limited definitions of yes and no conditioning means that we feel obliged to say yes to watering your neighbours plants or covering for a co-worker while they go out on a date, while you (a hot single mess) stay late at work to finish their projects. For a supposedly positive word, yes conditioning has a multitude of negative side effects when used incorrectly. In hindsight, I should have said no to helping with that art portfolio, but when I was put on the spot I couldn’t quite seem to find the words. And even once I realised they were taking advantage, I couldn’t figure out how to get myself out of it. Situations like this makes us feel disheartened, because we are taking on too much. If we have committed to giving up your already limited free time, quite often we resent the activity way before the fact. If it is a project at work or a social occasion, we can quite often feel like the loss of our precious time, energy, and resources, is a set-back before the event has begun. This has a domino affect on our personal and professional lives, making us feel as though we are out of control. As a coping mechanism, we may divide our days up into a list of endless ‘to-do’s’ that give the illusion that one day all tasks on the list will be checked off. But consistently saying yes to everything, including things that we wish we could say no to, leaves us running on a never-ending-hamster-wheel of high expectations within limited time.
In the same way that yes conditioning has a domino effect for the negative, it is interesting to see how saying no can have positive cause and effect. When we take charge of our decisions and decide how we manage and spend our time with assertion and consideration, we can start to see a change in our energy levels, our ambition and sense of overall peace. The word no puts us back in charge and behind the wheel of our lives, where we can feel and really be in control of our outcomes. No can feel like an aggressive word, particularly when used in self defence, so it’s no wonder that so few of us use it with any degree of frequency. I find it useful to use softening words before the actual no, like ‘unfortunately’, or ‘actually I think I’m busy so no…’, or even just a simple ‘oh-no’ is also quite effective.
The ultimate message here is to remember that saying no doesn’t mean that you are closed off to new experiences and opportunities. You shouldn’t feel like a bad person for not wanting to chaperon on your nephew’s dance or sell chocolates for your neighbours Girl Guide platoon. Save your kind and generous spirit for the moments that matter. Destructive selfish friends, for example, can be a huge drain on our weekends or our weeknights, which should be times reserved for fostering your good connections and precious relationships. It is sometimes hard to avoid the trap of saying yes to a friend who you know will spend your time together complaining about their problems, or spending all of the time talking at you rather than with you. But, by finding the confidence to politely turn down these offers, we make room for positive relationships that focus on important human connections. Relationships where we feel valued, heart, and appreciated. So, do take your best friend phô when she is sick, check in with your mum when you saw something that made you think of her, or help your mate by checking his mail while he is overseas. Recognise the people that matter to you and carve out room in your life for them as they have undoubtedly done for you.
And don’t be shy or think you are selfish for not doing this for absolutely everyone – and don’t be afraid to explain why. At work, if your boss asks you take on a new project and you fear that saying no will make you seem like less of a team player, take the opportunity to have a discussion. Let your boss know that you are already working on X, Y, Z, projects. Is this project a good opportunity for you to learn new skills and develop your level of responsibility or is it simply because no one else in the team has said yes to it? Be assertive, ask the appropriate questions and let your boss know the reasons behind you saying no, so you eliminate any of the damage that yes and no conditioning has. Nothing is ever black and white.
Within a personal and professional context, it is important to balance how we use yes and no in our everyday lives. We need to remember to put ourselves and the ones we love first. In treasuring our real connections and relationships, the value that we place on our time rises exponentially. This in turn affects our free-time, mental health, and professional development. In managing what we say yes and no to, we are able to eliminate the disappointment we feel in seeing an un-ticked ‘to-do’ list, and ultimately enrich our experiences and deepen our connection to the lives that we are living, right this very moment!
Claire Dalgleish is an arts writer and curator based in Sydney. Claire frequently contributes to her blog art/writing/projects with artist profiles, essays, and reviews. Claire loves wine, travel, reading, and art. Beyonce is the soundtrack to her life.