YES and NO

by Dr. rer. nat. Marlies Koel

What is the story behind the two words Yes and No?

Many of us know these common situations where someone asks you something and before we realised it, we have again answered with a Yes – even though we had firmly resolved to say No this time. We get angry about ourselves and sometimes surrender to the situation or even resign. What follows are phrases like “Well, I'm just like that”, “I'm always the stupid one” or “It's always been like that” etc. We don’t see the potential to change it or even often consider it impossible.

But where have we lost the Yes to ourselves? We say Yes to others and No to ourselves. Our personal history is hidden behind this way of dealing with a Yes to others and a No to ourselves.

What does a Yes mean? What does a No mean? What needs are hidden behind these two words? It’s worth pondering what they might mean to ourselves.

Definition of Yes

We interpret a Yes as a permission and an approval. It’s also often perceived as a kind of call for top performance in the sense of “Yes, you can do it!¨. There is much more connected with a Yes – the Yes to our interlocutor as well as the Yes to ourselves. This gratuitous Yes – without ifs and buts – is essential for us. It goes far beyond a welcome. As a child, we need it from our parents, above all from our mother. As adults, we have to give it to ourselves to lay the foundation for a self-determined life. It gives us the freedom to live up to our full potential. A poem by Hans Kruppa about self-reliance can give us an idea of this:

Let nothing and no one
sabotage the independence of your
thinking and feeling:
It’s the prerequisite
for the self-reliance of your life.

Be your own light. In this way you will always find your way, even in dark times.

Definition of No

A No always sets limits and can stop our energy flow. The limit of not doing something forbidden or dangerous or even trying something new. If we receive a No in response to a request, we often taken it personally, like a rejection of ourselves.  The person might feel excluded by the No, as if he or she does no longer belong. On the other hand, it’s sometimes difficult to say No because we are afraid of certain reactions or we are worried about our professional success or the well-being of others we have a close relationship with. We can also interpret a No in a completely different way – my interlocutor has a different set of needs than I do.

How can Yes and No affect the development of a child?

In our early development, at the latest from the moment when we are able to move independently in space, we often get to hear No. A little child is constantly being set limits and restrictions. It can’t understand why, certainly not that it’s for its own protection. Thus, the child will interpret these Nos in its own way.

Depending on how the child experiences these situations, limits and what unconscious decisions are made, this has a fundamental effect into adulthood. Statements like “You were like this even as a child.” etc. undermine this.

One of the greatest challenges in parenthood is to convey love for our child in spite of saying No or harsh words, and that this is also perceived and felt by the child, so that the fundamental Yes to the child and the unbreakability of the relationship remains unaffected. Children test their limits, which they aren’t only allowed to do, but also have to do. However, this often brings parents to their limits.

Interactions between child and parents

Children are extremely sensitive to their environment. They are the most reliable seismographs for their environment. They perceive every state of their environment as well as tensions due to incidents that weren’t communicated etc.  In the course of their development and irrespective of whether “You do it or you don’t do it”, they keep asking questions about why, often touching on taboos or family secrets. More or less annoyed parents avoid to give answers, and the children are fobbed off with sentences like “Oh, what you always have” or with a kind of No. According to the parents, they have a wrong perception.

Children like to be persistent by nature, but at some point they give up and are confused when they feel not understood or put back sensing very clearly what is going on. On the one hand, they can’t put it into words and on the other hand, their perceptions might be a taboo topic, something the family keeps silent about. This leads to confusion.

As children, we have all made decisions about how to deal with situations where there are no clear answers, not only answers about ourselves, but also about how we experience the world and others and what strategy we use to survive. Roughly simplified, these decisions can be divided into four main categories:

  • I trust my feelings and perceptions and don’t believe adults (authorities).
  • I feel right and still follow the adults' word and believe it.
  • I stop feeling and scan the environment incessantly. I hear a pin drop, sometimes even before they hear or perceive it.
  • I am completely confused.

Options 2 and 3 are the most common. Of course, there are also mixed forms and different behavioural strategies in different situations.

People who follow the word

People who chose option 2 often describe it later in their life as “But, he/she said so” and are shocked that the word wasn’t kept. They feel surprised again and again and can’t understand. If there is an inner conflict, because deep inside they feel that something shouldn’t be like that, but yet they follow the word. They can’t imagine that others function quite differently and live a different reality. These people need to find out that there are other possibilities.

The outside world often describes these people as naive or stupid, but they are simply too trusting. However, this is much too simple to describe the permanent inner conflict in which they find themselves. With their chosen strategy they try to find their way in a world in which the word doesn’t always matter. In their own reality, the word matters and has a high value and they are highly reliable with regard to a given word, which is definitely appreciated by their environment. This strategy, like any other, has both positive and negative aspects.

For these people, it’s important to add new perspectives and possibilities and change perspectives.

People who permanently scan their environment

In the third option, people constantly scan their environment. This is also quite common. Some people can remember very clearly the situation in which they have decided to stop feeling. They are continuously scanning their environment to see if stress or conflict could come from somewhere. Through this kind of control, they hope to fulfil their need for security or to prepare themselves to handle a stressful situation they can’t avoid. However, this strategy leads to persistent inner tension. They live in a permanent state of guardedness and are often on the go. Of course, this option also has advantages, e.g. they are experts in analysing systems.

People who always fulfil expectations – Yes-men

Every person reacts differently to requests and pleas. Some people always say Yes and thus quickly feel overwhelmed and not free in their decisions, although they are happy to help and support others. As part of their survival strategy, they say Yes to everything while saying No to themselves at the same time. In this way, they make themselves indispensable and secure their place and affiliation to the system. A secure place is simply non-negotiable.

One possible survival strategy that triggers this could be that they have decided “I have to belong to them, and I can only succeed by making myself indispensable”. To the outside world, these people might appear as “doers”. They take responsibility for the system, be it private or professional, and make excellent decisions for the system and not for their own heart. However, this can cause them to increasingly fall short, feeling unseen and unappreciated. They also exhaust themselves a lot, as they tend to go beyond their limits. In the further course, they can become dissatisfied and might end up in a burnout.

They often utter phrases like “No one hears me”, “No one sees me and what I do”. They will do anything to have a safe place in the system. The simple solution of saying Yes to oneself and not waiting for others to say Yes sounds easy, but it’s an enormous challenge for people with this survival strategy.

These people should learn how to say No. But this is easier said than done.

What are the consequences for us?

From my point of view, it’s essential to put the Yes to ourselves first, because then the No can come of its own accord in the right place. By focusing on saying No, we set stops and are increasingly constricting ourselves. By saying Yes to ourselves, we open up a larger space for ourselves and the door to more possibilities is opened.

If you say Yes to yourself, the No comes all by itself in the right place. This affirmation of ourselves as well as situations and events is a 100% recognition and acceptance of what is at that moment. Affirmation is the indispensable prerequisite for being able to really let go of circumstances. There are things in life that we can’t change. They are the way they are.

It’s not about saying No in general and refusing every request, but about deciding anew in every situation: Sometimes it can be a Yes, sometimes a No. It’s important to give yourself the freedom to decide anew in every moment and not to react stereotypically.

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