Published Sep 1, 2017 on Lyra Blog
By Matt Boone, LCSW
Lately, I’ve been practicing saying “yes” to everything. Whatever comes my way, whether it’s painful or pleasant, I silently tell myself “yes.”
Let me be clear: I’m not talking about agreeing to every request for my time. Or doing things I’m not willing to do. What I’m talking about is learning to stop fighting what I can’t directly control, whether it’s a stressful situation or a painful emotion.
If my car breaks down – yes. If I get a new boss – yes. If I feel anxious giving a presentation – yes. If I feel angry at something I read online – yes.
In each of these moments, I silently tell myself yes. All of this is outside of my control, and it can all be there, just as it is. Nothing needs to change right this instant.
My friend Jim suggested this practice. Like me, he’s a psychotherapist, and we’re always looking for new ways to help people become more accepting, to let go of fighting what can’t be directly changed. There’s enough pain in life as it is. We don’t need to make it worse by needlessly struggling.
Jim stumbled onto the practice of saying yes recently when he was talking to a colleague he finds annoying. Usually, whenever he interacts with her, he becomes absorbed in his thoughts and emotions. He stews about how wrong she is about everything. He feels irritated and frustrated, and then he judges himself for having these reactions.
But the only person this stewing and judging hurts is him. It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. So this time, he silently said the word “yes” to himself. He gave himself permission to be just as he was. He could have his internal reactions without having to change them, but he didn’t have to focus on them either.
Just as important, he silently gave his colleague permission to be just as she was. He didn’t need to devote any energy to ruminating on the difference between her behavior and what he thought her behavior should be.
From this perspective, his emotions had much less impact on him. They didn’t own him the way they usually did. And he could listen to her with an open mind rather than just dismissing her.
I’ve been saying yes a lot lately. I have a 3 x 5 card taped to my computer monitor that says “Yes!” to remind me. But it’s not really a new practice for me. I have been cultivating the practice of acceptance in different ways for a long time. Here’s an example from my personal life.
After trying to have a child for many years, my wife and I discovered that we couldn’t. For reasons that are too complicated to explain here, we decided not to adopt. Though we never thought that our lives depended on having children, we definitely wanted a family. We’d always imagined having a large house with children bustling around underfoot.
My grief at not being able to have children wasn’t overwhelming, but it was persistent, even insistent. It popped up without warning. I would go through my whole day hearing people talk about their children, and I would feel very little about it. But then I’d see a little girl playing in a park, all dirty knees and wild hair, totally unaware of the way girls have historically been taught to act, and it would gut me. A heavy wave would swell in my chest. I would be momentarily paralyzed.
My wife would have similar experiences. We began to call this moment, when we suddenly felt tackled by grief, “the baby sad.”
The baby sad became a constant part of our vocabulary for a few years. In the evening, when we were talking about our day, my wife might say, “Oh, and then after work I had the baby sad when I saw this cute toddler reaching to pet a puppy from his stroller.” I’d know just what she meant.
Acknowledging the baby sad, asking each other about it – “Did all those kids at that party give you the baby sad?” – was our way of saying yes to the grief. We didn’t need to wallow in it, and we didn’t need to push it along so that we could be over it sooner. We just said yes to it whenever it showed up and let it be what it was. There was something about doing this together that made the pain easier to carry.
I’m writing about this in the past tense, as if the baby sad doesn’t show up anymore. But it does, not with so much frequency, but certainly from time to time. There’s nothing we can do about it – either our infertility or our feelings about it. We can just let it all be as it is with love and acceptance. We can say yes to it all. And doing so only adds to the richness of our life together.
Acceptance is an evocative word. It can imply resignation, giving up, or giving in to terrible circumstances. The practice of saying yes is not that kind of acceptance. It’s being willing to have what’s already there, whether inside of you or in the outside world.
Let’s say, like me, you tend to feel anxious on you first day back to work when you’ve been off for a while. You dread each email, imagining the flood of tasks that will come with every click. By saying yes, you allow the anxiety to be there just as long as it needs to be. And though it’s uncomfortable, it doesn’t have to stop you from getting things done. It’s not a dealbreaker. It’s just anxiety.
Saying yes can seem trickier with difficult life circumstances. Wherever you come from, whatever your perspective, it’s hard not to look at the world and conclude that something needs to change. Saying yes doesn’t take that away.
Instead, saying yes means acknowledging and accepting that this is the way things are for right now. Fighting about it in your head or complaining about it to everyone you meet doesn’t change it. When you invite the world to be as it is, at least for this moment, you are not approving of it. You are freeing yourself to put your energy where it belongs: into action.
That might mean working on changing the climate for underrepresented people in your workplace. Or spending more time with family members whose values are very different from yours. Whatever it is, saying yes to what you don’t like in the world, though counterintuitive, can be the motivator to get you going in your work and in your life. And, in truly desperate circumstances, it can be the motivator to escape an emotionally or physically damaging situation.
Saying yes doesn’t mean liking or wanting what’s there. It just means making room for it. And from that perspective, you might find more freedom to change what’s changeable and let go of what’s not.