Unlearning the ‘yes’ habit
YES, I’LL COME AN HOUR EARLIER. YES, I’LL BUY THE GIFTS. YES, I’LL LOAN YOU THE CASH. YES, I’LL SHOP WITH YOU AFTER WORK. BLANCHE RADOM SEEKS HELP FOR HER ‘YES’ HABIT – AND EXPLAINS HOW YOU CAN LEARN TO SAY ‘NO’ TOO
I could fill an entire book with the stress and anxiety this threeletter word has caused me. And the worst part? Constantly saying yes makes me unhappy in the long run. So I can’t go on like this. I’m hoping the solution lies in having a consultation with a psychotherapist, so I visit Dr Benjamin Siemann. Perhaps he can explain to me why I just can’t seem to say ‘no’, even though I know it would be better for me. Our session begins like this:
What brings you here?
I’m here because I say yes in a lot of situations, even though I know it would be better for me to sometimes say no. In many cases, I get angry afterwards when I end up postponing a catch-up with someone because I never wanted to go in the first place or if I find myself struggling with shopping bags after work when someone else could have done it. I’d like to change this. Particularly because I’ve noticed many people don’t have this problem.
In my experience, we do things in a certain way because it works for us. So I’m wondering what your reasons for saying yes could be.
I instantly feel guilty.
When I think about saying no, I immediately think I may be making life more difficult for someone else. I only think of myself afterwards. But I do sometimes also wonder whether my friends or family really would be miffed at me for not being able to make it to a meet-up or do them a favour.
We don’t have to justify the ‘no’ to others, says Dr Siemann. It’s wiser not to because it’s then too easy to fall into a cycle of persuasion. And when it comes to persuasion, there’s always a loser.
But you don’t actually know what would happen if you said no. After all, you never do it.
So what exactly are you aiming for? It initially sounds like being cooperative is an important value for you. Because being able to help others surely also has a positive effect on you yourself. What happens in that moment when you say yes?
A girlfriend of mine was moving house once, and I somehow ended up being the only person able to help her with the move. Even though I wasn’t well at all that week, I still said yes. At first, I thought ‘I’m being a good friend for helping her’, but in hindsight it would have been better if I’d stayed in bed that day. My mood obviously also suffered. When exactly did your mood change? Everything was fine when I said yes to my friend. But on the day of the move, I was in a bad mood. And I started thinking about what the whole thing would involve. That it would take several hours, and that I would then feel unwell for »
several days because I wouldn’t have been able to rest.
How would you yourself have reacted in your friend’s situation if she had called you on the day to say she couldn’t help because she was sick?
My first reaction would most likely have been: “Of course; stay at home.”
I’d then have tried to find someone else.
So there may have been someone else who could have helped out in this particular situation?
I wouldn’t know. I didn’t ask my friend. But in your mind, this option seems to exist. Except this thought only comes to you once you’ve had longer to think about it. At the moment, it seems as though you only consider all the options afterwards. Or does the process begin right from the moment your friend calls you asking for help?
In some cases, I do feel very uncomfortable even on the telephone. I notice myself feeling burdened and under pressure right from the moment I’m being asked.
So what could help you decide in that moment? We’ve already established that you like helping your friends and family. So always saying no now would not make you happy either.
No, I don’t want that. I mean, I don’t think anyone would. In any case, I couldn’t imagine it.
So it doesn’t align with your values. Incidentally, how serious would you rate this problem, saying yes all the time, on a scale of 1 to 10? With 10 meaning it’s very serious.
I’d say 6. Especially since my diary is always so full from saying yes to every event and meeting. I feel I sometimes really do lose track and only realise at the last minute how much I’ve taken on. It would probably be helpful to sometimes just give myself some space to see how much time I really have left for myself.
One difficulty I can see with you is that you often rate your behaviour negatively afterwards. You’re not happy to have helped your friend; instead you’re just annoyed you’ve said yes again.
Yes, I get annoyed that I don’t put myself first in such situations. But I also think people might think I’m selfish if I cancel and don’t help.
Now it’s getting interesting. It sounds like your mind is playing out a film of sorts, in which you’re labelled as selfish if you prefer to do something for yourself and say no. Why do you think selfishness is something bad?
I don’t know if I’d call selfishness bad in general. It’s just that I almost immediately start thinking about what other people might think of me if I don’t help them; I get a guilty conscience. But I can’t describe the feeling specifically.
Practise saying no in a playful, experimental manner, says Dr Siemann, by initially choosing simple mundane situations, such as saying no to receipts in shops “or other rather harmless requests”.
But acting purely selfishly doesn’t fit with your values at all. Plus you can still do things for others and act with a healthy degree of selfishness. The biggest problem I see with you is that you allow yourself to be forced into things you don’t want to do.
How much time in the week do you spend on things you don’t actually want to do?
Well every week is different. It varies a lot. Admittedly, sometimes I’d like to cut half the appointments out of my diary and use that time for myself.
So that means you miss having breaks for yourself. But you have a guilty conscience if you indulge in them. These feelings won’t disappear as soon as you start saying no. Expect people to act surprised, but don’t let it unsettle you.
That definitely won’t be easy for me. I feel nervous just thinking about saying no. But I’ll give it a try.
‘I get annoyed that I don’t put myself first’
We ask DR BENJAMIN SIEMANN, a specialist in psychosomatics and psychotherapy, why it’s so hard to say no
“There are many different reasons and cases for not being able to say no,” says Siemann. “The ‘no’ is often associated with negative fears, such as the fear of no longer being liked, recognised, appreciated or loved. There are fears of negative consequences, rejection or conflicts, and the assumption of being considered selfish, lazy or inconsiderate.”
So there can be huge gravitational forces at play with a no – feelings of guilt, a heavy conscience and fear – which can swiftly be eliminated with a quick yes. At least in the short-term. But how do these associations come about? “From a behavioural therapy perspective, there are various explanations. You can trace these by asking the following: What is the affected person’s learning history? What experiences have they had with their family and previous relationships? Has their behaviour, ie saying yes to requests, ever resulted in certain consequences which were positive? Conversely, has the person ever experienced rejection or a decline in interest in response to a no?”
We’ve all had different conversations in response to a yes or no. If a no has often meant the end of a conversation, we have subconsciously stored that as a pattern of belief for ourselves: we think a no would be like rejecting the other person, doing something that’s not allowed, being noncompliant – so we quickly say yes. In doing so, we reduce tension for the short term, because we note instantly: ‘The other person is happy.’ But in the long term, we may end up getting angry at ourselves for not thinking of the effects of saying yes at the time. Is it possible to claim someone says yes or no too often or too seldom?
“There are certainly people who are very happy and are okay with doing a lot for others. It’s part of their personal values to be co-operative, and to always see whether they can take the strain off others. Many of these people are healthy, very well balanced, and highly regarded colleagues and friends. Problems only arise when we notice we have conflicting needs or competing values,” Siemann says. This is where the first part of the solution begins. We need to pause for a second to make ourselves aware ‘I have certain personal values and specific needs.’ Then we have to weigh things up in each situation. What’s important for me now? What sort of person do I want to be? What will bring me greater wellbeing in the long run?
“Yes and we need to realise both options are totally okay: ‘Yes, I’ll help you.’ Because it makes me happy to help others and bring them pleasure, and I have enough energy to do this. Just as: ‘No, I don’t want to’ is fine too. Because it would drain my resources so much I wouldn’t be able to take care of other matters also important to me. And it’s my right to stand up for myself,”
“We need to make things clear to ourselves from the start: What are my fears, what am I playing through in my mind? And how would I describe the situation as objectively as possible? What is the reality? Here’s a striking example: ‘If my friend asks me whether I can help him move and I say no, he’ll end our friendship.’ If those are my catastrophising fears, it may help to write them down. Seeing something in black and white increases the likelihood of recognising their absurdity. If I play through something only in my head, even the craziest things seem right. By seeing the phrase written down, it’s easier to create distance and see the whole thing better. Using the above example: What’s the likelihood of my friend reacting the way I fear? And if he does react that way, do I even want to be friends with a guy who shows such little understanding for my needs and limits?”
When deciding whether to say yes or no, look at your own ‘batteries’. What are your energy reserves like? What are you prepared to do? How far do you want to go? Do you want to say yes straightaway now or not?