Leading an Authentic Life: Knowing when to say “yes” and when to say “no”

To lead an authentic life, it is important to know when to say “yes” and when to say “no.” However, often as a result of our conditioning and our culture, we have lost or never learned the ability to discern which answer would most honor ourselves and which would help us be honest with others. Sometimes the answer is hard to make as we seek to find a balance between the need for authenticity and the desire for attachment.

When you say “yes” when you should have said “no,” it might be because of your desire to please someone else and your fear you might be rejected if you say “no.” Your answer could reflect a sense of duty or responsibility for others and how they feel, instead of an accurate reflection of your own needs. You might say “yes” because you fear negative consequences if you say “no.” At work, you might say “yes” because you feel like you are the only person that can do the job being asked of you or you feel an overly strong sense of responsibility and duty. Any of these reasons for saying “yes” likely come from beliefs that we developed in childhood about how to survive, be safe, and be loved.

When we are young, we often come up with strategies for adapting to our environment that help us feel better in the short run but are limiting as we grow older. Unconsciously, we hold on to the childhood strategies and the beliefs that underlie them well into our adulthood. Did you ever notice that sometimes you actually feel like a child when you’re deciding how to respond to someone? That might be the sign you are operating under the adaptive strategies you used as a child. They might not be serving you now.

Another way of inquiring is “when did I not say “no” when a “no” wanted to be said?” This way of looking at saying “yes” too much was offered by Gabor Maté in a recent workshop I attended. Gabor Maté is a renowned addiction expert, who has written extensively about trauma, addiction, stress, and childhood development. His new book The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture, explores the idea that everything is connected, including psychic wounds and physical illnesses, and that these are not anomalies but ordinary, even epidemic, in the society we’ve built.

Rather than pathologize the individual, Gabor sees this deficit of authenticity as a result of our adaptation to a toxic environment and our interactions with other people in a culture that often doesn’t support our healthy development. As a result, it is important for us to begin to do our work of healing by looking at the beliefs that we have developed over time and whether they are still serving us or not.

After you ask the question “When did I not say “no” when a “no” wanted to be said?” there are some important follow-up questions you can ask yourself. What was the impact on you when you didn’t say “no”? Did you feel resentful, overwhelmed, anxious, or alone? Not saying “no” can lead to these and other challenging emotions that may not ever get expressed. A habit of not expressing how you feel can lead to difficulties and even breakdown in relationships with others and, even more importantly, a disconnection with yourself.

What was your belief behind your inability to say “no”? As I mentioned earlier, you might believe you can’t say “no” because people will desert you, your work will fire you, or you will face other negative consequences. I actually remember the first time I said “no” when I was deathly afraid I would be abandoned by someone I loved. I was in my early 30s! In reality, the only response I received back from my “no, I would like to do this a different way” was a simple “okay.” I was shocked. It was such a teaching moment for me. I became a recovering co-dependent!

Where did you develop those beliefs? It can be helpful to look at where and why you might have developed the beliefs driving your responses. For me, it was the belief that I had to be a “good girl” and not displease anyone. Even further, I thought that if I was a good girl, maybe my Dad would be happy. He did not appear to be a very happy man at home. The sad part was that it never worked and at one point I just rebelled (which is a whole other story).

Who would you be without those beliefs? When you give up the beliefs that you’ve held onto in response to circumstances in your childhood, you can face your adulthood more fully and authentically. If I didn’t have to please my Dad and didn’t need to rebel, I could actually decide for myself what I wanted to do at any moment. I would be free. Sometimes freedom is scary when we haven’t had it before. It opens up a world in which I can respond with how I authentically feel. That requires courage and bravery.

Where am I not saying “yes”? This can be just as toxic as not saying “no.” When are you holding yourself back from doing the things that feel authentic to you but you may be afraid to do? When are you not saying “yes” to your own creativity? When are you not saying “yes” to the challenges that might help you grow because you have decided you’re too young, or too old, or too something?

Awareness of stress in our bodies can help us feel the impact of not expressing ourselves appropriately. Notice the next time you are faced with a “yes” or a “no” and notice what is happening inside you. Are you relaxed or do you feel tension and anxiety? The tension and anxiety might be a sign that you are having difficulty being authentic in the situation, and you may give an answer that isn’t in alignment with what you really want. Go through the questions above and see if you can figure out what’s going on.

Alternatively, asserting ourselves is a way of declaring to ourselves and to the world who we are. When you can assert yourself, with kindness, you will be able to flourish. Emotional competence is the ability to feel your emotions and express them effectively. Being able to set boundaries and engage in new activities through your expression of a “yes” or a “no” can help you cultivate a life full of more meaning and connection.