When Yes Means No and No Means Yes

When Yes Means No and No Means Yes

I once met a woman who had traveled the world. She had learned to speak Zulu in South Africa. She had slept in hammocks beside the Black Sea. Her eyes were kind and tolerant. Even now as a fully employed urbanite, she still went riding, camping and sailing every weekend: things I had always dreamed of doing, but which in my fearful insecurity, I had never learned to do and dared not do alone. Week after week, my new friend graciously invited me to join her. I wanted to say yes, but always said no.

When you and I were babies learning how to speak, "yes" and "no" were some of the first words we mastered. Maybe we cannot clearly remember all the experiences, people, activities, foods, toys, planned excursions and requests to kiss chain-smoking Grandma that our tiny selves greeted with an emphatic "yes" or "no." But as adults, we've all watched children attentively assessing new experiences and accepting or rejecting each such aspect with a fierce vocal thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

Those moments are crucial milestones on the Path to Personality: the developing brain combining its inborn inclinations with momentary fleeting details and whatever evidence it can assemble to deliver judgments, positive or negative, which will shape the will-dos and won't-dos, the likes and dislikes, of a lifetime.

But those of us with low self-esteem have the pesky habit of reversing "yes" and "no"—saying one when we mean the other, fully consciously or not.

Sometimes, when asked to do something we would rather give our left arms than do, or to accept something we would rather give our right arms than accept, we think no, yet say yes—because we're afraid or ashamed to speak the truth. Once others realize we have this quirk, they can use it to take advantage of us. Hey, will you stay late at work tonight and get all this extra filing done? Cover for me when Joe gets here, OK? Can you loan me two hundred bucks?

Low self-esteem makes us say yes, yes, yes, yes. Most tragic of all is when we never even feel the first pang of misgivings and don't realize that, in this case, yes does not mean yes.

This is the etymology: Yes when we mean no translates back to fear. To squirming in our skin. A gasp. A scream, somewhere back there. Frozen silence, then no-but-yes.

Conversely, we with low self-esteem often say no when something we truly want is offered to us—as I did when invited to ride, camp and sail. This is partly because we don't believe we deserve what we want, and partly because we're afraid of looking ridiculous and being mocked for enjoying what we want "too much."

What if my new friend said to others of me, afterwards: She wept with joy just at seeing a waterfall! She ate fourteen s'mores! What a buffoon!

We also fear that once we declare what we want, claim it by saying yes, it will be snatched from us because we have no right to it.

We must learn to value these words, yes and no, as if they were the realm's most precious coins. We must hold them tightly—not using them freely, yet, until we learn to see and feel the differences between them. Rubbing them, scrying them through magnifying glasses, hefting them in our hands to gauge their true weight, we must use them as the treasures they are.

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