A Year of Saying Yes, A Year of Saying No
When you are a shy, introverted child, you very quickly get one lesson down pat: the world is not made for people like you. You begin to believe that you are wired wrong, because you should be able to be as outgoing as your extroverted peers. Many learn to put up a front, engaging in more social activity than they are willing or able to handle, while in others, the opposite response is spurred, as self-consciousness rears its ugly head: that of withdrawing even more deeply into oneself.
I experienced a curious blend of both, navigating through life with self-effacing kindness, in favor of others’ wants, and simultaneously giving so little of myself that I don’t think people ever truly knew me. And that was fine with me. I would like to think that I was protecting my sensitivity from their ruthlessness, but in truth, I was the one harming myself all along.
I have never been able to say ‘no’.
I think it was Oprah who said that “when you say yes to life, you say yes to life experiences”. It’s just another variation of “life opens up when you do”, and all that jazz. In truth, saying ‘yes’ has always been a passive thing for me, a knee jerk reaction, more than a thought-out process; and this is perhaps why I’ve always felt threatened by the word, locked in an involuntary affair with it. ‘Yes’ means:
- please like me
- please acknowledge I’m a good person
- please leave me alone already.
But above all: if I help you, will you one day help me? When I would say ‘yes’, even when I couldn’t, even when I didn’t have the ability to, and would grow resentful at feeling used, it was because I was evidently not being genuine.
About two years ago, I got fed up with sleepwalking through my life: certain situations had made it intolerable for me to keep taking the backseat, and it all came to head in yet another emotional crisis. I needed to do something about it — which of course is easier said than done. Curiously, this didn’t entail standing up for myself just yet, but rather challenging what I thought I knew, and finding different ways of doing what I had always done.
And thus began my year of saying ‘yes’.
How was this different from what I had been doing until this point? Well for starters, it wasn’t for anyone but myself.
Big things and small: they all got the green light. When I said ‘yes’ to a friendly invitation, one I certainly would have shot down without a thought, it was to kindle my own excitement, not because I wanted to please others. When I said ‘yes’ to clothes I never would have worn, to books and films I would have glossed over, to situations that usually made me hesitate, to shattering my daily habits, to flipping my idiosyncrasies on theirs heads, it wasn’t for anyone’s benefit but my own.
I said ‘yes’ to moving to a different country, in a city I didn’t know, to switching majors, to branching off the course of my future; I said ‘yes’ to shunting my methodizing out the window, to making plans at the last minute, to going out at all moments of the day; I said ‘yes’ to cooking new things, to spending more than I saved, to joining clubs, to attending late-night screenings, art fairs, museum shows.
In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what the point of it was, and in sheepish self-consciousness, I would have ended my little experiment posthaste, had I not started to see slow-moving changes to my life. In that year, I met ten times the amount of people I usually did, got my driver’s license, played in front of a live audience, went to the gym instead of working out on my own, made big purchases I had been sitting on for years — and it was amazing.
It was like swimming too fast, hearing the rush of water fill your ears, drowning everything out; and you get addicted to that sound. You get addicted to the sensation, once you realize there is nothing you can’t do.
It was not always good, and it certainly was not always fun, because giving the go-ahead to everything doesn’t filter out those less savory occurrences, but they were outweighed by the wonderful, wonderful ones. Those months exacerbated parts of my personality I had thought subdued: I became more candid, more curious, more excited at turning the corner and seeing what awaited me. Strangely, I also became more nonchalant: when you are used to seeing events and situations as unsurmountable obstacles, which have to be weighed and endlessly pondered about, having a ready-made answer simplifies everything.
Beyond the adventure of it all, it was unexpectedly therapeutic: anxiety not only holes you up in isolation, it makes you feel like you are not brave. Depression convinces you, like condescending parents, that you have no real agency in your life, and that you are safest when entrenched in careful (albeit bleak) structure and monotony. I got to stand up to those catty voices and tell them that they were downright wrong, actually. I got used to boxing with my fear, dancing with it as if it were a lovely adversary, instead of the irrepressible menace it had always been, eating me away nibble by nibble.
‘Yes’ took on a new meaning, one it had never before had: ‘yes’ was power. It was almost less about the word itself, than it was about giving myself permission. I would watch myself gunning the accelerator at every stop, grinning like a girl who’d just figured out that the monster under her bead was nothing but a paltry smokescreen for something far less impressive.
And perhaps because of that intoxicating sense of power, I did not immediately realize that, coming on the heels of that year, was one of the worst manic episodes I would ever experience.
I thought that I would silence inadequacy by being open to daunting opportunities, but before long, I was right back where I had started. I had no control over my decisions.
My year of saying ‘yes’ gave me an excuse to be impulsive, justified my increasingly erratic decisions, the way the guise of self-care had often made it acceptable for me to be even more self-indulgent. I was simultaneously thrilled and exhausted, simultaneously eager and restless; and if I so much as hesitated (my intuition getting the best of my excitement), I felt like I was a coward, betraying the principles of openness I had promised to uphold.
The manic phase itself is not relevant — rather, it’s what happened right after. Burned out and bone-weary, one afternoon, I was browsing for TED Talks when I fell upon Susan Cain’s “The Power of Introverts”. Before long, I was reading excerpts and reviews about her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking”: and what a revelation it was.
I do acknowledge that my interesting year was the result of the intersection of different elements, namely that of mental illness, introversions versus extroversion, and self-assertion. What didn’t work for me was due to combining factors, that may have turned out differently for others. Perhaps someone who didn’t have manic depression wouldn’t have swung to the extremes that I did; perhaps someone who wasn’t an introvert, but simply unable to make crisp decisions wouldn’t have ultimately been so worn out; perhaps someone who was already comfortable with saying ‘yes’ wouldn’t have been so keen to keep the momentum going.
But all those variables didn’t apply to me. I suppose that the saying was right after all: “when you say yes to life, you say yes to life experiences”. Saying ‘yes’ was the gateway for everything to come at me at once, the extraordinary as much as the not-so-extraordinary; so that while my issues with self-assertion, and some aspects of my mental illnesses benefitted from it, the introvert in me became deeply unhappy.
It’s all very strange.
Susan Cain’s phenomenal book was the affirmation I needed, in the midst of all that tumult, to challenge what I had been told from the start, and what I had started to firmly believe in, of late: namely that strength and life-changing opportunities only come from being open and extroverted. I needed to be strong enough to tell myself that it was okay to be myself: it was more important than challenging myself, it was more important than living my life dramatically, it was more important than square-pegging a round hole.
And maybe that meant starting the new year with a different kind of purpose. maybe that meant finally being okay with the word ‘no’.
This, I knew, was going to be a different kind of beast. That word had always carried universes of disquiet for me. I didn’t like hearing it, I dreaded having to say it. It even rolled off the tongue wrong: ‘yes’ left a slithering whisper behind it, trailed a note of seductive hope that teased the ear. In every language that I know, it’s the same.
‘No’ is as curt as the favor it denies, as cutting as the letdown it promises, as heavy as the laden rejection it offers: and I didn’t want to be associated with any of that. It’s egotistical: I recognized the insincerity of my feeling eons ago. True, I didn’t want to disappoint, but I also didn’t want to be seen as the kind of person who would disappoint. I didn’t want to hurt feelings, but I also didn’t want to be labelled as a hurtful person. So much for supposedly not caring about what people thought of me. The nuances of the word scared me almost more than the word itself, so I stayed away from it, and along the way, its subtle richness ended up passing me by completely.
Nonetheless, similarly to how ‘yes’ acquired a new meaning once I let it, ‘no’ changed my year in subtle ways, the likes of which I was unprepared for.
First and foremost, it was a curious thing, having to reverse my newly acquired habit of welcoming every invitation thrown my way. I turned down last-minute plans and occasions that I knew would tire me. I turned down propositions that seemed tempting, but which I knew were laced with drawbacks. I turned off my phone, rather than take calls I could wager would upset me or waste what little time I had. I allowed myself to be tentative about situations where my anxiety would be put to the test, and it was a new kind of exciting.
I wasn’t saying ‘no’ for the sake of it, but rather, weighing things before I accepted them, pondering decisions before I made them: because in many ways, my erstwhile eagerness to shut down and be by myself had been as impulsive as the year I spent acquiescing to everything.
It’s been interesting.
On the plus side, I filtered many people whom I thought were friends, people who couldn’t handle my newfound reticence: breathing away the toxicity has been priceless, still is. I’ve had more time for myself, more quiet in my life, more apparent freedom and structure than I had had in a long time. I was no longer caught unawares by time, because I was no longer making last minute decisions, and in turn, my life fell into place again.
But many familiar and unwelcome demons made their sly returns: I was alone with my thoughts more often, and I was more often isolated than not. These pauses did wonders for the manic side of bipolar disorder, but not so much when it came to OCD and anxiety, which chase after each other like mad dogs when I cage myself off. It didn’t always help my depression either.
Saying ‘no’ reminded me of the person I had spent my life trying to cloak beneath meek solicitude: namely someone who was hard and cynical about people, detached and aloof out of self-preservation. And having understood that if I let these influences win over, I’d be stuck in a senseless cycle of extremes, going from insincere ‘yes’es to resentful ‘no’s, I finally pushed the brakes down, hard.
It meant being okay with vexing others and putting myself first, with prioritizing my time, with filling my days with more silence, with cordoning off those who were noxious to my wellbeing. But above all, it meant accepting that I wasn’t “wrong”, somehow, for being more comfortable like this than I was being outgoing and talkative.
For a full year, I confronted my need for balance. I went head-to-head with myself, keeping note every time I wavered and wanted to give into the comfortable impulse to let people have what they wanted: namely more of my time, my help, my opinions, my presence, my advice, my shoulder to cry on — especially when they would not have done the same for me.
I held onto what the previous year had given me, that is to say the knowledge of what I could do when I put myself out there, and how my life could be different when I stimulated my childlike curiosity. I held onto that, but settled into the comfort that came with finally starting to — dare I say it? — like myself as I was. I looked around and found others like me, who were also content on their own, content with evenings spent nuzzled against a cat or dog, recovering from the chaos of the day. And I knew, in my heart of hearts, that it was perfectly fine.
I am proud that in many ways, I accomplished exactly what I set out to do: in other words to stop apologizing for my existence, or find ways to excuse the way I am, even to myself. I have finally understood that I don’t need to justify myself to people: I am simply finding different ways of saying ‘yes’ to myself, by saying ‘no’ to others.
That is what real strength is.