“No” has power. “No” gives you control. “No” allows you to slow things down when they are moving too fast. “No” gives you space — room to breathe and room to think. “No” is your way of expressing your free will. “Yes,” on the other hand is scary, it’s vulnerable, and it’s uncertain. “Yes” means you are giving up control and things are going to change, for better or worse. “Yes” requires action and commitment, where “no” maintains the status quo.
Used strategically, “No” allows us to be safe, to protect our integrity, and gives us strength, time, and focus for those things we DO want for ourselves, our lives, and our loved ones. “No” is a buffer and it gives power and meaning to our “Yes.” Without “No,” our “Yes” has no value or weight. Without “No,” we have no identity or boundaries because we are only that which others want for us or from us. If we have no “No,” we have no “Yes.” If you do not want something, if you do not like something, or if you do not accept something, say “No,” even if just to step back and re-evaluate.
Okay. That said, I have a problem. Me, personally. I have a problem you could call obstinance, rebellion, resistance, whatever. I’m stubborn and contrary. I don’t know when it started, but sometime in my youth I developed a visceral, knee-jerk resistance to being told what to do, as if the very thought of acquiescing injected firey poison into my marrow. It’s not intentional. I know I wasn’t born that way – although the doctors did have to come in and get me when I refused to come into this world.
Maybe I lost my trust in people somewhere along the way. I remember being innocent minded, being open hearted and believing all people are good. I remember being sweet and naively happy. I also know that changed at some point. I changed. Perhaps it was from being bullied at the bus stop or being made fun of for being overweight. As many ways as there are to call someone fat, I’ve heard them. I even had one kid on my lacrosse team call me a fat-ass in Sicilian, I think. Either way, the day eventually came when I no longer wanted to hear what anyone had fo say and I learned to say “No,” not always in words, but definitely in deeds. I became resistant.
I refused to do schoolwork. My attitude grew increasingly worse as the years went on. The more teachers told me how smart I was and how much potential I had, the more I withdrew and the less I did. If you had expectations for me, I was determined to let you down. I know my parents did the best they could with me, but I would do anything I could to stay home or get sent home and I eventually refused to go to school altogether.
I remember in my senior year of high school, the school told my father who I was living with at the time that I needed to do two things to graduate. I needed to not miss one more day of school and I needed to write one single essay for English, the only class I needed to graduate because I made it all the way to 12th grade by passing tests without reading books or studying (potential… wasted). I opted to stop going to school altogether, forfeiting my graduation, and eventually leaving home to sleep on my friend’s floors or in my car. All of this because of the immense power of “No.” My life. My terms.
Fast forward a few years. I was in trouble. I was drinking and doing drugs. I was basically homeless. My mom and stepdad let me back in their home against their better judgement. They said “Yes” when my lifestyle was telling them “No,” I’d reached a low – I’m not sure there’s really a bottom if you’re still breathing – and my parents got together without a lawyer for the first time in years. They sat me down and said I needed help. They offered to provide it. Of course, I said “No” and stormed away. Later that day or the next day, I was even lower and I finally broke down and said “Yes,”
Fast forward again and I’m living in Annapolis, getting my life together with my family’s help and the help of some good folks I’d met along the way. I was working at Starbucks on Dock Street in downtown Annapolis and I’d recently been promoted to Shift Supervisor. The funny thing is that I’ve basically been in a leadership/manangement position in my career since that day. The reason? I got ahead of my “No.” I figured out that the only way to not get told what to do was to do what you were supposed to before you were asked. So, I did a really good job, more than was expected of me, and I got promoted.
Anyway, one day, the store’s Assistant Manager, to whom I reported directly, asked me for my college schedule (college was easier for me than grade school because it was entirely voluntary. In fact, I graduated — on my own schedule — with honors) for the next semester so he could make the schedule. Without pause, I blurted out, “No.” Confused by my strange reaction to an entirely reasonable, benign request, he asked, “Why not?” Equally flummoxed, I said, “I have no idea. I’m sorry. I’ll get it to you as soon as possible.” He looked at me with genuine concern and said, “You REALLY have a problem with authority, don’t you?” “Yes,” I replied, “and apparently it’s worse than I thought.
Here we are, twenty years later. I’m married to an amazing woman, we have a beautiful daughter, I have a good job and a nice home, and I’m starting my dream business, a martial art academy, with my friend and my brother. Life is good, but that “No!” It haunts me. It’s like a hellhound nipping at my heels. My wife once said to me, “Every time I ask you to do something, you say no. Then, you wind up doing what I asked anyway. Can we please, PLEASE skip the middle part?” I’m trying. I’m really, really trying. The problem is that the same life coping skills that seemed to keep me safe and protected in my youth will, if left unchecked, destroy the things that are good in my life because “No” is my path to solitude. The stakes are much higher now and I have learned to (at least try to) say “Yes” to life and what is asked of me. It is the root of all I have that is good.
Robert Van Valkenburgh, Co-Founder of Kogen Dojo & Taikyoku Mind and Body