You can’t have a yes without a no.
For a lovely year starting at about 18 months, my son’s favorite word was a very adamant “NO!” Do you want to pee on the potty? NO. Do you want to sit by your new baby sister? NO. Do you want to help mommy pick up your toys? NO! I REALLY did not like that word for a while.
I, on the other hand, did not have the word “no” in my vocabulary at that time, or for many years after. I was a “yes” girl. Need anything in the whole wide world? I’m your girl. I’m here for YOU. I didn’t even think about it when someone asked for something, it was always an immediate YES. I’m in. I will do it, and by it, I mean everything!
I was an exhausted mom working shift work that demanded me to say yes all the time in my career. Yes to every patient whim – yes to being their waitress, their therapist, and sometimes their punching bag. Yes to every doctor’s demand (no please or thank you required). Yes to every extra shift. Yes to extra classes and training, yes to extra responsibilities, yes to teaching new nurses, yes, yes, yes. Which then carried to my life outside of work.
I was everyone’s rock. Having a bad day? Yes, I’m here to listen and give advice and take your load to carry, even though mine is heavier. Need a favor? Yes, I can do more, be more, even when I didn’t have more to give. My time is your time. My life is your life. So many yeses. Except I said yes but really meant no.
Yes led to resentment. It led to the feeling I didn’t matter. It led to exhaustion. Yes was my way of people pleasing, making sure I was liked and felt valued. But I didn’t feel that at all. I felt used and abused. A yes to someone else meant to big fat NO to me.
It also meant no to the people I loved the most. What I didn’t realize at the time was that each time I said yes to something, I was saying no to something else. Wait. Read that again. EACH TIME YOU SAY YES TO SOMETHING, YOU ARE SAYING NO TO SOMETHING ELSE. Or someone else.
For instance, can you bring three different kinds of cookies to the bake sale? Yes (shit when am I going to have time to bake three different kinds of cookies?). Fast forward to 9 pm that night, the entire contents of your pantry spilled onto your countertops, and you hear … “Mom, can you tuck me in?” NO, are you kidding, I have to bake all these cookies, and it’s 9pm, and I haven’t even … There’s the no. To someone who matters most.
THAT is how I learned to love the word “no.” By facing the fact that my yeses were taking away from my favorite people, the people in my inner circle who loved me most. And not just directly. When a million yeses led to all those no’s to myself, the secondhand reaction was impatience, yelling, and at times rage. It was ugly.
I started saying no to small things. I almost couldn’t say the word at first. It sat on my tongue and held on for dear life. It felt impossible. And then I reminded myself that a no to one thing meant a yes to another, most often my family. And as hard as it was to value myself at the time, I knew I was also saying yes to myself.
The first no came with an excuse. A reason. I couldn’t just say no because I didn’t want to, right? Then came the explanatory no, I’m saying no so I can say yes to my kids. Finally, I could say no for the sake of saying no. I wasn’t rude, I might say, “no, I’m sorry, I just can’t prioritize that right now.” Or “no that won’t work for me but (insert something that does indeed work for you.”
It felt … freeing. It felt like I was in control again. The people who I had always said yes to were taken back. The new no me was something they had never seen before. They were annoyed I’m sure, pissed off maybe. I thought it would be terrible. It wasn’t. Because I was saying yes to the right things and I knew it.
What are you saying yes to? WHO are you saying yes to? If you can’t say that your yes is bringing you or a loved one joy, pause, take a breath, and let that NO roll off your tongue. No, no, no. You can do it. Find your inner toddler. Remind yourself what it feels like to say what you mean. And remember your no will always lead to the best yes.