On Getting Past “No”

“You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.” >

— Bob Marley

A few years ago, I binged through several episodes of “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” Towards the end of each episode, the host James Lipton asks a lightning round of questions to his guest. I’m always intrigued by the answer the actor or actress gives to the question “What is your least favorite word?” Many actors and actresses have the same answer — “no.” As being the greats and the top performers in their field, my interests were perked. “Could I also stand up to someone telling me, “no?”. The answer is prevalent in our everyday lives. “No.” When faced with adversity, shame, and humility, the greats do not take “no” as an answer.

And yet, years later, I would say “no”. I said “no” to quitting a horrible job. I made a conscious decision every day for two months leading up to my voluntary termination that I wasn’t ready to quit my job. I had put in over a year’s experience at this job, I was burnt out and ready to leave, but I was conflicted. I thought there was some saving grace of staying and working.

On one hand, I got to work with devices that could potentially save someone’s life. And I got to work with fun, yet difficult design challenges. But the payoff felt so minimal because as soon as I finished one project, another one would follow suit. I had no satisfying feeling of having a job well done. I remember after completing a huge project, I went to the break room to take a rest. Management came in to tell me I had another big project due tomorrow. It felt defeating because this was the fourth or fifth time this happened that quarter, and I had the feeling this would never end.

On top of that, the job wasn’t getting easier. I spent each morning pressing the snooze button on my alarm hoping to have just another hour of rest from hell. I rarely made dinner after work because I worked 12+ hours a day. I hated how disorganized the work space was, spending an hour or more sometimes trying to find a tool. Upper management had a passive-aggressive management style, creating a workers who read between the lines on how their work performance was like, but never truly knowing. One of the other engineers was paranoid he would be fired a month before he was axed. Operations had a reactive rather than proactive stance, deciding to go making mistakes today and fixing them tomorrow.

I knew none of this was going to slow down. I let the stress affect my self-worth and self-esteem to the stage where I woke up every morning and thought, “I hate my life.” I would try to shake the thought, and by the time I arrived at work, my line of thinking was, “let’s put on a good attitude, because I don’t want to spill my shitty feelings onto anyone else.” I was emotionally uncomfortable with myself.

Yet still, I thought, “no, it’s not time to quit yet.” We oftentimes belittle ourselves into being our own worst critic. Our superego takes over and becomes a loud speaker. “You’re making a stable income. There’s nothing to worry about here.” I was shouting at me and I couldn’t dodge it. Sometimes, the superego was wildly irrational. “You’re letting your parents down if you leave this job. No one will support you if you leave.” This made is all the harder to overcome that pestering “no”.

Feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed, I reached out to a family friend and an old boss of mine for an opportunity to teach. To my surprise, they offered me a deal to do some substitute teaching. Taking it as a sign, I went home to discuss it with my roommates. After a glass or two of wine, they were convinced that I needed to quit now. I told them about my hesitation and a list of non-reasons why I shouldn’t quit. The job didn’t pay well, it would only be for a few months, and I would have a long commute. But I thought back to the adverse effects of saying “no”. I reflected on all the shitty mornings and thoughts of hatred towards my life that I stopped talking excuses and asked for help. I finally had convinced myself I needed to take action to quit. My roommates helped me craft a resignation letter, and after an hour, I had a pretty good final draft for a resignation letter where the tone didn’t sound like I was going to burn my bridges. And then the moment of truth. I had the resignation email prepped and ready to send. But I hesitated in pressing the “send” button. Everything in my brain tried to reason that this was not the right decision to make. That’s when I decided that I would send the email right before I was going to pass out. That way, I reasoned, I couldn’t think about the worst case devastation.

The next morning, I breathed deeply as I checked my email before going to work. There was no reply from my boss or the head of the company. “Maybe the email didn’t go through,” I thought. When I got into work, my boss grabbed me aside and congratulated me on my career move. I had thoughts all morning that I was going to be reprimanded. It was a huge sigh of relief, and thinking back at it now, I wonder why I had taken so long to take action on the stress that had caused me anxiety and depression for a few months. Upon further reflection I believe I limit myself and my ability, being fearful of opening up and being vulnerable for a difficult conversation I would have to have with my superiors. I think I over-complicated the matter and focused on the wrong consequences which makes me feel trapped and helpless. Out of the helplessness, I felt alone with no one to really turn to.

I learned months later that the voices in my head would never truly go away for me. My therapist explained to me there are a few ways therapy tries to cope with a loud superego. One way is to try to remove it through mental conditioning. Another way, the one I prefer, is to turn down the volume of the superego through mindful practices. When I’m feeling stressed and there’s this loud voice in my head telling me “no” with phrases that make me feel unworthy, shameful, and anxious. At this point, I stop what I’m doing and try to find that mindful state, and imagine I’m looking at myself with a nonjudgmental gaze. I feel the emotion sweep through me and instead of trying to reason with it, I let it pass. I don’t try to suppress the superego; I just let it talk. When I’m done with this exercise, I resume what I am doing without the stressed feeling as before. Everything becomes clearer, like the irrational conclusions the superego was making.

Along with this, I prepped myself with trying to build a solid foundation for my emotions. I didn’t want to say “no” anymore, so I picked up habits that I now use as a defense when I am stressed out. After listening to Brené Brown’s TED talk, I bought her book, “Daring Greatly,” and one of her recorded seminars, “The Power of Vulnerability.” It is from her teachings that I learned about building empathy and exposing my vulnerability to trustworthy people. I found solace in a friend who will always listen to what I’m saying and not judge me for who I am. She never tells me “no,” that I’m not enough. And she expects I do the same, even when she doesn’t tell me that. I don’t try to tell her “no”, because “no” means you’ve made a decision to believe there is no possibility.

When I find myself saying “no” to going to do something new, I stop myself and wonder, is it because I’m afraid of the shortcomings that may occur? That usually changes my “no” response to a “yes”. Last week, I did exactly that. I was saying “no” to going to a house concert, but after realizing I had no fears of going and the resistance was just built up from general work stress, I said “yes” to the RSVP. I had a blast and couldn’t fathom after the experience how I was ever resisting this meet-up. These kind of conversations happen on a weekly basis. Sometimes it’s about hesitation in doing something new at work. Sometimes, it’s working up the courage to ask someone a favor. Nonetheless, I have taken these opportunities to test my emotions because I know they can be a fickle bitch.