A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Does 'No' Ever Mean 'Yes? How to Choose Wisely

Say 'yes' to your own health and well-being

We know that it is a good thing to be able to take “no” for an answer. We know that, when it comes to sex, “No means no.” Even Jesus advises us to keep our word simple and clear, “Let your no be no, and your yes be yes.” So why do I say that every yes is also a no, and every no is also a yes?

June is a busy time of year. There are graduations and weddings, final projects and end-of-the-year parties. There are vacations to plan, guests to be hosted, papers to write or grade, last minute details to be tended. And the birthdays! Why does it seem there are so many birthdays to be celebrated in the middle of the high busy season? And Father’s Day. Don’t forget Father’s Day.

These are all important moments in time. Life-changing moments when a baby is born, a couple’s love for one another is sealed, or a diploma is earned and granted. Moments of achievement, remembrance, and celebration. And who wants to miss a good party? In this fast-paced culture of ours, it’s just so hard to say no.

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Nevermind the feelings we might hurt, if we do say no. What will my friend think if I turn down her invitation? I don’t want her to be mad at me. Or disappointed. Or feel rejected. Or think badly of me. Or not invite me next time. How will my child feel if he doesn’t get to attend the party, if he misses out on the ice cream or the bounce house or the sleep-over? I don’t want him to feel deprived.

But the truth is that, whenever we say “Yes” to one thing, we say “No” to something else—or maybe even to a host of something elses. When we say “Yes” to many social opportunities, we implicitly are saying “No” to time at home, or at rest, or with ourselves and our more intimate circle. And the reverse is also true. When we say “No” to the idea of hosting a big gathering with everybody and his brother, we say “Yes” to a chance connect on a smaller scale, potentially in a more meaningful way.

In so many cases, deciding what is right for us isn’t an obvious choice. Making a choice isn’t as easy as saying “Yes” to the good and “No” to the bad.  Often we must choose between two goods. Go out to dinner with friends or spend time with myself or my family at home? Work some more on writing this paper or take a break? Treat myself to a chocolate chip cookie or count my calories? There is nothing wrong with any of these options—at least if we do them in moderation! But the truth is that we can’t have them all at the same time. As I’ve said so many times before, life is a series of trade-offs.

So how, then, do we choose between two goods? Here’s how I think about it. We need to have some basic principles that guide us. These principles don’t have to be very complicated or fancy. We simply ask ourselves, “If I say yes to this opportunity, how will it affect my physical and emotional health? How will it affect the physical and emotional health of those I love?“ Asking ourselves these basic questions often guides us to making a choice that is better for us, at this particular time and in these particular circumstances. They work for everyday choices like those I have mentioned, as well as bigger choices in life like sex, marriage, divorce, children, career, money, and the like. We benefit from asking ourselves, "Which choice really promotes my well-being and the well-being of those I hold most dear?"

I have found it helpful in my work with myself and with my psychotherapy patients to view saying “No” to one thing as a way to say “Yes” to something else. When we are able to preside over our lives with this kind of wise judgment, then we can feel better about our decision to decline something good because we know we are choosing to accept something that we deem better for us at that given moment. Such an approach takes the sting out of the inevitable guilt, regret, and disappointment that we all feel when we say “No.” Those painful feelings are counter-balanced by the more encouraging feelings that come because we have said “Yes” to what seems most right to us in that moment. We can take some comfort that by saying “No,” we are saying “Yes” to our own health and well-being.

Copyright 2013 by Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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