Although Jim Carrey’s films are usually pretty zany, in some of them he tackles psychological themes. Yes Man (2008) is one of those. In it, he plays Carl, despondent over his divorce. He automatically says “no” to any question, request or offer that comes his way. A former co-worker tells him about a “YES” seminar in which participants are urged to make a covenant to agree to whatever is proposed to them.
Carl becomes a “yes man” for a time with both pleasant and unpleasant results. When his new girlfriend, Allison (Zooey Deschanel), asks if he wants to live with her, Carl says yes, but not whole-heartedly. Here he comes to the crossroads where he finally learns discernment: to be free to answer either yes or no, depending on what he really wants or doesn’t want.
The film invites exploration of our “default switches,” which serve as defensive strategies. Some of us tend to comply and accommodate by always saying yes. Others tend to rebel and shut down to new experiences by always saying no. Neither rebelling (by an automatic No) nor complying (by an automatic Yes) are real ways of establishing either independence in the first case or closeness in the second. Rebelling mimics autonomy and compliance mimics merging.
Both reactions are in relation to something external, instead of getting in touch with what we truly want or don’t want. In both instances, we are either going against or going along with something or someone and are therefore controlled by forces outside ourselves. Either one of these knee-jerk reflexes can interfere with our authenticity and true individuation, in other words, expressing who we really are deep down.
I want to focus here on those of us who tend to automatically go along with things. Since I myself am so inclined, this is something to which I’ve given a lot of thought. I hear the same self-reflection from many women; it seems to a large extent we’re conditioned as females not to “rock the boat,” to be nice and to put the needs and wants of others before our own. (This is not to say that some men aren’t under the same influence).
For some of us, it can be difficult to tolerate potential conflict. We don’t like to risk upsetting or disappointing others, or hurting their feelings. We want them to feel at one (merged) with us, even at the cost of not feeling “at one” with ourselves, preferring to suffer the conflict inside rather than outside. We sever the relationship with ourselves rather than risk severing our relationships with others, abandoning ourselves. We might be rejected if our opinions or what we want is in opposition to others, or we worry that the status quo might be disrupted if we express what is true for us.
The irony to all of this is real closeness and connection develop when we tell the truth, even an unwelcome one. Otherwise, a “false self” is making the connection, leading to feelings of isolation, alienation and aloneness.
[Auxiliary to this: how can we trust those who always agree with us? Back to the movie, when Allison realizes Carl’s yeses were made on auto-pilot, she doubts his sincerity about their relationship.]
A character in Alice Walker’s novel, Now is the Time to Open Your Heart, says: “… we try not to know what we know because we do not yet understand how we are to negotiate change.” The difficulty with the truth of our Yes or our No is that once we admit it to ourselves, we have to decide what to do about it. We may have to change our normal (and safe-seeming) patterns and risk that which we have feared.
When our response is “I don’t know,” when we’re unclear or confused, it can alert us to a possible inner conflict between ourselves and the other person. Another trap is second-guessing, doubting and giving ourselves reasons for not saying no: “I’m being petty,” “I’m wrong about this,” “I’m resisting or avoiding something I ‘should’ do,” making it easy to override a No.
The word “resistance” particularly triggers me. One definition is “opposition to an attempt to bring repressed thoughts or feelings into consciousness.” I picture myself in analysis with Freud, as he strokes his beard, interpreting my every No as “resistance.” What is the difference between resistance and respecting our own inner knowing, timing and pacing?
What I’ve come to realize is that I often resist my No. There is a “yes man” in my psyche. What I really want and what is best for me in the moment is then sacrificed. This can be as simple as saying yes to a social invitation because I feel obligated, not because I want to. Or not weighing in on a family discussion where mine is the only discordant voice.
Sometimes a No is a result of our anxiety when we find ourselves up against a personal threshold: a growth edge outside of our comfort zones or facing something we would rather avoid due to unresolved issues or trauma. Whether the No is for something that really doesn’t work for us or whether we’ve come to a growth edge is a matter of self-inquiry and discernment. If we find ourselves at an edge, we may not be quite ready to handle the anxiety which arises, or we may chose to push the envelope and explore new options.
Understanding why I say yes when I want to say no is crucial to my growth. Learning to know what is right for me and when is an art.
When is self-discipline in fact an overriding of our No and not a true Yes? We can make a decision to do something based on logic or practicality or some kind of pressure. A clichéd example illustrates: A woman becomes a doctor to please her parents, only to find in mid-life she really always wanted to be an artist. We can force ourselves to do a lot of things we aren’t whole-hearted about, and sometimes that’s necessary. But it’s important to come to a decision or a compromise that is consciously informed, to access a deeper truth about what we need and what is right for us versus a choice based solely on the balance sheet of reason.
When does self-discipline interfere with our spontaneity? We can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and knuckle down to accomplish all manner of things. Not a bad thing when necessary. But when does it become such a habit that we simply reinforce the disregarding of our No? One example is when we need rest. Author Natalie Angier writes, “One reason for human diligence is that we, unlike other animals, can often override our impulses to slow down. We can drink coffee when we may prefer a nap, or flick on the air conditioning when the heat would otherwise demand torpor.” Further, when we can’t say no, sometimes our body has to say it for us. Gabor Mate, in his excellent book When the Body Says No, writes about this at length and how it affects our health.
What I am talking about here, ultimately, is our ability to make choices through becoming consciously aware of our automatic responses, and the capacity to sift through and discern our deeper motivations for our Yes or our No. This process ultimately leads to more and more empowerment towards living our life more authentically.