Saying Yes Taught Me How To Say No

At the start of 2018, I decided I wanted to make a change. Not a flakey New Year’s Resolution that would fall through by February, but an intentional shift in how I navigate my social interactions. I set out to stop making up excuses just because I was scared – and start learning how to confidently say yes to the unknown.

The inspiration comes from a pretty funny place. In my teens, I half-watched a movie called “Yes Man,” and quite honestly didn’t think too much of it at the time. The film is a Jim Carrey comedy where the main character Carl is stuck in the vicious cycle of negativity, and very dramatically decides to do something about it. While attending an overly-enthusiastic self-help seminar, he learns about “the power of yes,” and sets out on a mission to say yes to absolutely every opportunity that comes his way. Yes to bungee jumping. Yes to taking guitar lessons. Yes to learning new languages. Yes to attending his weird co-worker’s house party. Yes to taking chances on new friends. As you can imagine, some of these new adventures turned out to be fun, fulfilling, and wholeheartedly rewarding. Other times, Carl found himself in dangerous and uncomfortable situations – all because he felt forced to say yes.

Fast forward about a decade, and now I am following Carl’s path. Teenage me is shaking. I would not say I am a particularly negative person, though in recent years I have noticeably found myself turning down things I would have easily enjoyed before. I’ve been RSVPing no because I was tired, or because I would rather go to the gym. Sometimes I just wanted to spend that going-out money on new clothes rather than cab fare. Like Carl, I was spiralling into a pattern of saying no, and keeping more and more to myself.

I cut myself off from friends who only wanted me for the good times, and ignored phone calls from old acquaintances figuring they likely had an agenda. The thing about cutting yourself off from people is that they tend to cut you off right back. I found that there are not many folks out there who decide to wait around until you’re out of your negative funk and want to go see live music or hockey games again. When you stop going, they stop asking you to go.

So at the top of 2018, I decided to say yes whenever I didn’t have a good reason not to. I decided to reach out to people more, and stress less about rejections. It takes a lot more courage than I thought I had to suck up your pride and contact someone who is likely to say no. Why would a former coworker want to go to Brooklyn with me? Why would someone I took dance classes with in high school want to meet me for soup at the corner cafe? I got plenty of rejections along the way, but they didn’t sting as bad as I had feared. What I have found is that most people, just like me, were feeling lonely and cut off from social interactions, and were typically thrilled to be included whether plans panned out or not. Nobody (to my knowledge!) laughed at me for the random weird girl coming out of the woodwork, the reaction I expected.

It was surprisingly easy to get started, but challenging to maintain. I am nearly a year invested in this project and – like my buddy Carl – my yeses also took me some interesting places. I decided to go back to school. I traveled out of state for an old classmate’s book launch. I reached out to former colleagues on social media and invited them to random places I was going. These were all the exciting adventures I had hoped for at the start of my project.

One of the quickest realizations I made was how much I genuinely wanted to support people again. Do I want to buy Girl Scout cookies from your niece? Absolutely. Can I stop by your band’s set, or go to your poetry slam? Why not? Can I help edit your sister’s college essay? Of course.

But the most important lesson I took away from all of these instances of saying yes was learning when to say no. As I said earlier, it was so simple for me to say no when I was scared, or lazy, or tired, or anti-social. But just like the “Yes Man” Carl himself, I found that saying yes just for the sake of being positive doesn’t always result in a good outcome. 

My experiment inadvertently made me aware of all those times I wanted to say no, but squeaked out an uncomfortable yes. You likely know those moments too: “Sure, I’ll take more work than I can handle at my job, because I don’t want to get fired! I guess I’ll add this guy on social media even though he’s giving me creepy vibes!” The excuses we tell ourselves when trying to ignore the warning signs in our heads are way more dangerous than the lazy excuses we tell others to get out of doing something challenging. More than ever, it has become apparent to me how different “Nah, I don’t feel like going to her birthday lunch,” is from “I am being taken advantage of at work but I have to be a team-player.” Being positive is one thing. But being down for anything doesn’t mean putting up with anything. This is a captivating difference that I’m excited to keep exploring – and I’m hoping to find my balance quicker than Carl did.

Written by Kristine Hope Kowalski

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