Un­learn­ing the ‘yes’ habit


Good Health (Australia) - - Contents -

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.

(I nod.)

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,”

Sie­mann says.

“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?

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