Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Power of No: Reclaiming control of your choices

One of the most thrilling words you learn when you stop doing something, be it drinking alcohol, smoking weed or spending too much time on your smart phone, is one we as people have a long relationship with. It’s commonly one of the first words we learn, and as toddlers are masters of its use. We apply it to everything, much to the annoyance and frustration of everyone around us. But as we grow older and more mature, we seem to let this little word slip from our vocabularies. Once we have to start saying it again, it needs practice and time to get used to it. But when you do, it can revolutionise your life. So, let me introduce you to my new favourite word…”No”.

We live in a world of “Yes” - saying yes when someone asks you to buy something is what makes the world go round. And while positivity, being open to new opportunities and taking time to help people is worthy and important, what’s just as important is recognising that all that noble work starts with you, and that unless you are happy, healthy and whole, you can’t help anyone else. So, perhaps rather counterintuitively,  if you want more “Yes” in your life, you might have to start off with a little more “No”.

The problem is, that apart from those ‘special’ few years as a toddler, when “No” trips off the tongue like it’s going out of style, saying “No” doesn’t come easily to us. This is because of the way our brains have evolved. The first part of our brain to develop, after our super-basic reptilian brain that controls bodily functions, was the limbic system, or the mammalian brain. This is that part of the brain that deals with basic survival stuff - food, sex, emotions - and is the part that says “Yes” to questions like “Should I eat this entire chocolate cake?” The more rational, ‘human’ part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is all about looking at the evidence, taking stock and thinking in the long-term. It didn’t evolve until later, which means that information, as it travels through your brain, will go to the limbic system first. There your question will receive a resounding “Yes”, before the pre-frontal cortex has a chance to get in on the conversation and remind you that eating an entire chocolate cake has, in the past, made you feel regretful and rather sick, and that perhaps, just perhaps, for your long term health and happiness, maybe a nice bowl of crunchy vegetables would do the trick. Of course, by this point, you’re three slices in and your limbic system, covered in frosting and licking its fingers, has done its job. 

What? Is there something on my face?

Another reason that saying “No” is often a struggle is dopamine. Ah yes, our good friend dopamine. It’s often misunderstood as the ‘pleasure’ chemical, but the way it works is actually much more complex, and therefore harder to combat. When you do something addictive, dopamine is released in your brain, and it creates a reward circuit. This means it registers the experience as ‘important’, and creates lasting, positive memories of it as pleasurable. Dopamine changes the brain on a cellular level - these circuits are hardwired into your brain, and eventually become well-worn pathways that once you’re going down them, it can be hard to get off. So when we start saying “No”, we really are going into uncharted territory, and it takes time for the new pathways to form. We need time for dopamine to create reward circuits for our new behaviours, and for us to collect new positive memories. 

The final reason is more psychological. We worry, about a lot of things. “No” causes us a lot of mental anguish, because we worry so much about the impact of our “No” on others. We worry that people won’t like us any more, we worry what people will think, we worry that we will be missing out on all the fun. We have been conditioned, in a world driven by “Yes” to believe that saying “No” will have a real and negative effect on people, and that that effect is more important than the very real and negative effect saying “Yes” to everything can have on ourselves. We have to remember that worrying solves nothing, and it won’t change the outcome in any way. If you say “No” to someone, they will either be fine with it or they won’t, but using emotional energy worrying about how they will react will not change that reaction one iota.  

So if “No” is so hard to say, what are the benefits? Why should we be letting more “No” into our lives?

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly in the context of addiction, saying “No” is extremely empowering. “Yes” is easy, it’s what we’re used to, and it’s the path of least resistance. The first time you say “No” when someone offers you a drink or a smoke, a few things happen. You realise how easy it was just to let that little word “No” drop out of your mouth instead of a “Yes”. You realise that the world didn’t end. And you realise that it is possible to say it again. You have taken control of your life, which gives you confidence in your ability to do it the next time. The first time I said “No thank you” to the offer of a drink, it was so powerful I felt like I could do anything, especially say “No” to the next person. And the next.

Secondly, “No” is honest. If you are swamped at work, and someone asks if you can deliver a report and you say “Yes” because you don’t want to let them down or look like a slacker, you are not being honest. You will either deliver a half-assed piece of work - which is just another way of letting them down - or you will make yourself more stressed and overworked in your attempt to deliver, which means your future chances of doing well are reduced. You don’t have to scream “Are you fucking kidding me, have you seen the size of my in-tray, there’s no earthly way I could ever get that done you slave-driving psychopath!” (Although I’m sure some of us would love to do that one day, just for shits and giggles!) You can just say “I’ve got a lot on at the moment, I’m not going to have the time to do a thorough job. Perhaps Susan might be the best person to tackle this.” You haven’t apologised, you’ve explained that you want to do the best you can, and you’ve also given a nice nod to Susan, who maybe has been dying to show what she can do. Using your “No” to benefit someone else is a positive side-effect that can take the potential sting out of being honest. 

Another benefit of saying “No” is that it makes room for more “Yes”. This might seem a bit counterintuitive, but it makes sense. Each of us is working with the same amount of hours in a day, and trying to fit in all the things we have to do, as well as all the things we want to do. Often we feel like there’s just not enough time. Figuring out what you’ve been saying “yes” to without thinking, things that are taking up a lot of time but not giving you a lot in return, and then starting to say “No” instead, will give you back that time and allow you to say “Yes” to the things you really want to do. Don’t have time to go to ballroom dancing classes, even though you’ve dreamt of dancing like Ginger Rogers your whole life? Maybe saying “No” to the weekly office after-work drinks that have got a bit stale and samey and always end in too many tequila shots and bitching about Frank from Finance might free up the time you need to get your foxtrot on. 

Two, three weeks tops - and you'll be a star!

When I stopped drinking, I was so over alcohol that saying “No” felt like a breath of fresh air - I was excited and happy to be turning down drinks, and spent a lot of time in the pub with my friends, merrily chugging pints of water and gleefully saying “No” to people trying to buy me drinks. When I stopped smoking it was very different. It was hard to be around smokers, and being comfortable in a party environment has taken a lot more getting used to. I’ve had to say “No” to going out because I’ve felt like it would be too hard. I feel like I’ve embraced the “No” a lot more since becoming completely sober - here are a few tricks I’ve used to make that process easier.

The way you say “No” makes a difference to how easy it is. I used to say “No thanks, I don’t drink”, because I felt like I somehow owed the person an explanation. All that did was open me up to invasive and often rude questions from total strangers that made me uncomfortable. Now I just say “No thanks”. I have no responsibility to make someone feel more at ease at the expense of my own comfort. If you really feel like you need a ‘reason’ to give people, saying that you’re driving is great - absolutely no one should hassle you for refusing to drink and drive, and if they do, they’ll look like a dick, not you. I even used to say this when I lived on a island with no roads or cars - it confused people enough for a second that I could just walk away. 

Planning out your “No’s” ahead of time helps a lot - you’ll feel less put on the spot if you have already firmly decided that you’re going to say “No”. With addiction, I feel like this is the moment that you decide you’re going to stop. You make the decision that from now on, any time someone (and that includes the addictive voice inside your own head) asks you to do XYZ you’re going to say “No”. You might be asked the question a hundred times, but you only have one answer, which you’ve already decided is a resounding “No”. 

Offering an alternative is a good way of disguising your “No” as a “Yes”. If someone asks to buy you a drink, you can just say “Sure, I’ll have an orange juice.” You haven’t technically said “No”, and orange juice is technically a drink, so hopefully the person offering will be polite and considerate enough to accept your pseudo-yes and get you the damn juice. In work situations, use your “No” to amplify and put forward someone who’s struggling to get attention. You get some valuable balance, and Susan gets to shine. Everyone is winning. 

Finally, practice, practice, practice. We have evolved survival mechanisms that favour “Yes”, and those mechanisms are being exploited by the corporations around us. If it seems like it’s hard to say “No” in the world right now, you’d be absolutely right, and it is not an accident. Saying “No” takes practice, but it is not something to shy away from or feel guilty about. In so many ways, saying “No” is about reclaiming our power, refusing to be manipulated, and making space for more joyful, meaningful and important “Yes’s”. 

Take some time to figure out what is important to you, start small and let the power of “No” fill you with the confidence to go out into the world as the most awesome foxtrotting version of yourself you can be!


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