Just Say Yes

Lately, I have found myself saying no to things more often. It’s like an automatic response. Before I’ve really even considered the question or the possibilities of the offer, some part of my brain has come up with a reason why it is not a good idea and rejects the proposal out of hand. I did it last week. Someone said to me, “Simon and I are going for coffee if you’d like to join us.” Out of nowhere I began to panic and my brain started working instantly on a convincing excuse as to why I would simply love to but it’s just quite impossible with everything I have to accomplish in the next hour. I felt a hot flush as I scurried off hoping that my excuse had seemed convincing. Did I sound appropriately appreciative of the offer? Was that rude of me? Will they see through me? I don’t really know why I said no but the closest I can get to the reason is that I was probably worried about feeling vulnerable. I was worried about being in their company and feeling as though they might regret having asked me along. I wasn’t interesting enough company. I might feel awkward and wouldn’t know what to say. Of course I know in my rational brain that it’s just coffee! I’m every bit as capable of talking about the weather as anyone else! Why couldn’t I say yes? Just say yes? What’s the worst that could happen?
          It’s become apparent to me that this reflex response of no could be a growing problem in my life. Am I blocking myself from new opportunities for no good reason other than fear of the unknown? When we were all locked away during the pandemic, I thought at the time that I couldn’t wait to do all those things (like socialising) again but now I think I’ve become a little too comfortable isolating.
          It is a commonly held view that as we grow older we become less adventurous, less inclined to take risks or step out of our comfort zone. Is this true though? I know plenty of people, many of you in this congregation who are full of a sense of adventure and would definitely be open to trying new things… you would have said yes to coffee. Is it just me? Or did any of you find yourself in a period in your life where you had begun to say no and did you correct yourselves?
          To address the issue of whether we are less inclined to take more risks as we age, a little research tells me that apparently that is not exactly true. As we age, the dopamine levels in our brains decline by around ten percent per decade and as a result, we don’t get the same rush by taking risks that we used to get when we younger. We still take risks, but we don’t quite get the same dopamine hit out of them.
          So I set about examining why I had begun to become a no person and trying to work out what that was saying about me on a deeper level. The first thing I realised was that I had to start saying yes to things more often. Someone asks you to do something, you say yes. And what was the first request that came my way after making this resolution? An email from Bridget looking for volunteers to take a service. The universe wasn’t messing about.
          Our lives are built upon yeses and nos. They’re the first words we learn as children; the first words we learn in a foreign language. They’re the oldest words and the shortest sentences and they can have a huge bearing on the direction of our lives. Sometimes the smallest of yeses or nos, the ones that we think are entirely inconsequential are the ones that end up mapping out the rest of our lives. 11 years ago I was on my way home from work one evening when I asked myself whether I should go straight home or drop in to my local on the way. I can picture the moment of decision clearly. It was the winter of the big freeze, the ground was icy underfoot, I was crossing Capel Street bridge, my house was to the left, and my local was on the right. Go home… or go out? I pondered the question for maybe no more than a few seconds and then the voice of opportunity in my head spoke up and I took the path to the right. That night I met the love of my life, the person I’m still with today, still going strong. A seemingly inconsequential yes or no mapped out the rest of my life until today. I’m sure you all have those similar moments in your own lives. And there’s a whole branch of the self-help industry dedicated to this philosophy of saying yes. Shonda Rhimes, the hugely successful producer of television drama such as Grey’s Anatomy and Bridgerton wrote a book called Year of Yes. The book came about when some time ago, Rhimes was sharing about her successes with her sister and she was talking about some of the amazing events that she had been invited to. Parties, performances, launches, lavish dinners and other industry events. When her sister asked her whether she was going to attend any of them, she replied, “God no.” Her sister put it up to her that she never says yes to anything. She always made excuses that she was too busy or she had family commitments but actually, when she examined it more deeply, she realised that she was just too fearful. So she decided that she would start saying yes to everything and would commit to doing so for a year.
          What transpired over the course of that year, she describes as a complete transformation. She grew in confidence, although she had already been a hugely successful woman, her success grew and she became happier and healthier and her friends noticed the huge change that came over her. She had never anticipated the extent of the benefits that just saying yes would have on her life. Saying Yes, she came to see, opened up unimagined possibility and opportunity and she became the very best version of herself, simply by saying yes.
          In a recent article in the Huffington Post, author Susie Moore identifies seven reasons why she believes saying yes can transform our lives.

1. You block the miracle if you don't:
Opportunity sometimes knocks gently and does not wait for perfect timing. The truth is, there is no perfect timing! Start before you are ready. We need to trust that the universe has a bigger plan for us; one that we can only understand with hindsight. When we say no, we reject more than the opportunity; we reject the fun it brings, what it teaches us and the further gifts that can unfold.

2. Someone believes you can:
To have the option of saying yes, someone or something believes you can do or achieve something. Take the opportunity as a compliment and harness the confidence other people have in you.

3. Yes leads to more doors (no is often closing the door):
What would have happened if I had gone home that night 11 years ago?

4. Opportunities do not always arise again -- or at least the same ones:
Life and luck favour the bold. Sometimes when making a decision and considering both outcomes, the "no" outcome is connected to regret somehow. Regret is sometimes the biggest risk of all.

5. Life is richer, fuller, more vibrant:
When we say yes, we do more, create more, live more.

6. It attracts positivity:
The word itself is inviting and empowering. Stretch yourself:
Why are we all here if not to live the highest, fullest version of our lives? By saying yes, we invite possibility into our lives and the ability to learn what we are capable of and just how far we can go.

7. Life is short. Ask not why, but why not?
Steve Jobs said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” A little perspective helps us abandon our fears. Ask yourself for a change: What is the best that could happen? Think upon it. How does it feel? What is the best that could happen? Ponder that for a while. A yes might be your magical answer.

But how can we learn to overcome the impulse to say no? Another motivational speaker and author Mel Robbins offers some insight into why we often say no when we should say yes and she gives some helpful advice on how to overcome that negativity.
          One of her first bits of advice is to remember that we are never going to feel like doing it. She says we are all so busy waiting for this magical moment to come when we will feel like doing that thing that we naturally don’t want to do. It never comes. She says we have to force ourselves out of our head, past our feelings, out of our comfort zone and into a space she calls deliberate thinking. Where you take control of your mind and you impose a different answer. You apply force.
          Robbins argues that our minds mostly operate in two modes – one is autopilot and the other is what she calls the emergency break. As soon as something arises which is outside our brain’s sphere of familiarity, we automatically apply the emergency break. She says that anything that is a diversion from our routine is going to require deliberate thinking. Is going to require force. If we start weighing up the pros and cons of any situation which is unfamiliar, we will rarely win the argument for doing it, our brain will always pull the emergency break and the only way to overcome it is to apply the force of deliberate thinking.
          And Robbins believes that we have a 5 second window in which to apply that force and if we don’t do it in 5 seconds, we lose the battle. So she recommends counting backwards from 5 to 1 and then just doing it. It’s the only way to block the emergency break and puts us in contact with our deeper selves, our intuition.
          There is an interesting demonstration of the power of yes in the field of improvisation.
          If you have ever been involved in any drama class you might have taken part in an improvisation game. Well, the first rule of improvisation is to always say yes; never block a suggestion. So for example, if your scene partner says, “I love what you’ve done with your kitchen”, you don’t respond with, “what are you talking about? We are in the supermarket”. That scene is going to run aground pretty quickly. To make the improvisation work, you must always accept the offer. So in response to “I love what you’ve done with your kitchen” You might say “Why thank you!
          We thought the gold taps might have been a bit of an overstatement but they go well with the Italian marble.” You’ve now opened up the possibilities of this imaginary world and are ready to grow the story.
          These drama exercises can have a unexpected effect in other areas too. In the business world, for example, people are seeing the huge value of improvisation in the corporate setting. If you must always say yes to people’s offers, then team building and morale is strengthened and people feel more confident about bringing their ideas to the table knowing they’re not going to be rejected. They are more inclined to think outside the box and not be limited to their own safe suggestions that are less likely to come up against resistance. What’s so interesting about this improvisation game in the workplace is that it’s only when the number one rule is to always say yes that you realise how often our natural inclination is to say no. We always seem to be focusing on the reason why something won’t work. If we have to accept that it will work, we build on suggestions and often arrive at a point we could never have achieved had we rejected one of those initial ideas.
          Obviously there are times in our lives when we need to say no. What strikes me as so puzzling is that so often I say yes to the things that I should say no to (people pleasing) and no to the things I should say yes to (fear of the unknown).
          And saying yes is hard, breaking old habits and stepping out of familiar territory is hard.
          But by starting to interrogate these decisions, perhaps we can listen to ourselves on a deeper more intuitive level and make more deliberate choices, choices that might lead us on a more contented and rewarding path.
          “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.” (Wallace Stephens)

Will O’Connell                                       Sunday 13th June 2021
Dublin Unitarian Church