I think many conflicts reveal themselves through personal and cultural expressions of “Yes” and “No.” Many people grow up in environments where their “No” was not respected or was dangerous to voice, and learned to say “Yes” to things that drain vitality or cause harm. Others say “No” to everything, even when something deep inside wants to say “Yes,” even when saying “No” makes no sense.
I think we internalize a lot of ambivalence as children, a time in which we are learning the boundaries of our personhood and are subject to people who have a lot of power over us. For children and oppressed people, saying a firm “No” could be completely disregarded or result in active harm by those with power. Learning how to say “Yes” and “No” is, I believe, an act of self-respect and claiming our own power. This can be very troubling to those who are invested in having power over us.
A few examples of how things become complicated:
We might say “Stop it! No!” but we smile and laugh, and our bodies seem to be communicating “Don’t stop! Yes!”
We might say, “Yes, no problem,” but the smile is forced and tight, and our bodies seem to be communicating “Back off, leave me alone.”
We might say, “No, I don’t want that,” but secretly we long for it desperately. We want to scare away the potential lover hoping that they will see through the ruse, overcome the obstacles we erect, and save us from self-imposed exile.
We might say, “Yes, I will happily do that errand for you, except I have fifty other things to do, and I need to be at home by five, and I won’t be able to get around to it until next week.” And we secretly hope the other person will just do it themself.
Somehow it can feel awful to only say “Yes” when we really want something, and only say “No” when we really don’t. They cannot be complete sentences. They need to be qualified.
Tara Brach teaches , a practice I will convey in its complexity here, but at its simplest is a saying “Yes” to life as it is right now. By saying “Yes” in this way, we open the doors of awareness and possibility. We include parts of ourselves and our lives. We say “Yes” to those things that might scare us or cause us discomfort, because those things are already present. We say “Yes” to the things we would otherwise close off and flee. I find this a deeply affirming, life-enriching practice, and I do not see it as including saying “Yes, it is okay for you to hurt me.” Instead, I see it as saying, “Yes, I feel my hurt.” “Yes, I feel my sense of burden.”
I believe saying “Yes” in this way complements the practice of saying “No.” “No” draws the boundary. “No” has the power at the negotiation table. When I am honest with my experience, then I understand what in my life feeds me and what causes me suffering and harm. I can say “No” to suffering and harm. I need no other reason or justification for saying “No.” When I offer reasons or justifications, often others hear those as obstacles to be overcome or reasoned away on the road to getting a “Yes.” “No” stands alone. “No” can feel harsh but does not need to be cruel and judgmental. “No” is simply a closed door. I will not do that favor tonight. I will not continue to hurt myself by participating in this relationship. I will not buy that thing.
I’ve learned that I need to respect my own “Yes” and “No” before others will, and sometimes I need to figure out how to manage a situation in which my “Yes” or “No” may never be accepted. Deciding my answer internally can inform my behavior, such that the truth is communicated even if my words are civil. As with so many other things, studying my heart and saying “Yes” to what I learn can help me to understand my “Yes” and “No.”