This photo. It looks so simple and sweet, the picture of a woman enjoying herself on holiday. But it’s more than that. Much more. This photo also represents a victory in a long-standing tug-of-war with the AUTOMATIC NO.
Are you familiar with the Automatic No? It’s an old acquaintance of mine, a seemingly comfortable companion. It’s cunning. It’s clever. But it’s actually a traitor to happiness.
The Automatic No sneaks into relationships and slowly poisons them. Someone, usually a family member, will ask you to do something fun with them, and you decline. How many times have I done this?? How many times has a loved one asked me to play with them, and I said no without really thinking about it?
I’d been obeying the Automatic No for a long time without ever knowing it. Sometimes there’s an underlying fear — I’m afraid of this or that germ, afraid of this or that injury. Sometimes there’s an underlying laziness — I just don’t want to move or get up. And sometimes there’s an underlying assumption that “fun is for kids.”
I wouldn’t generally articulate my reasons. I would just say no and stay out of the activity. Over and over again, I chose to remove myself from the merriment without ever asking why.
But then last year happened. A colleague of my husband’s helped us pinpoint OCD as the cause of so much mental anguish in my life. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: it made so much sense. At last, I had a label for my oddities. Finally, we had an explanation for my eccentricities.
So I dove into the literature on OCD. Some of the most helpful work came from Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, author of Brainlock. Brainlock describes what happens in the brain of a person with OCD, and it prescribes a plan for changing your brain by changing your behavior.
And let me tell you, this plan works. Of course, it only works if you implement the strategies, but the strategies are highly effective. (Watch this 30-minute video for an introduction to the four-step plan for treating OCD.)
Basically what happens in that the gear-shifting system in the brain (the cingulate system) is “sticky.” It doesn’t shift well. So when a thought, usually something bothersome, dangerous, or anxiety-provoking, comes into an OCD mind, it literally cannot leave. The thought is physically stuck on a loop. The brain can’t move from anxiety to safety because the gear shift is faulty.
It takes a lot of work to shift gears, especially at the beginning of treatment. And it is this lack of ability to flex that causes us to say no automatically. We don’t think through our answers; we just say no. We can’t shift our attention very easily, and NO is always an easy answer to give.
My husband, who works as a pastoral counselor, has a lot of books on mental and emotional health laying around the house. One of them is Dr. Daniel Amen’s Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. I picked it up and flipped to the sections on fear & anxiety and on worry & obsessiveness.
It was in the section on worry & obsessiveness that I discovered the name of my adversary: the Automatic No. It was in the pages of that chapter that I came face to face with my tendency to destroy fun in a relationship.
When invited into the fun, I don’t explore it. I don’t get curious. I don’t ask myself if I really want to do something. I just say no. I don’t even consider it. I just say no to getting in the water and swimming with my family, even though I always enjoyed it as a child. I don’t play ball games with my family. I stay on the sidelines and watch. I don’t do that fun thing my husband is asking me to do. I opt out.
Because why should I say yes, when I could just as easily say no instead?
But I recognized myself immediately in the description of the Automatic No, and it scared me. So I determined to alter my customary no’s. To at least try to fight back against my familiar, well-trodden brain paths. To give myself time before answering the invitation. Time to think about whether I really have to say no, or whether I could possibly say yes. I never knew I could say yes, that I could try it and see. Maybe I’ll like it, and maybe I won’t. But I’ll never know unless I try.
So I started saying yes more often. It was a tentative “yes?” at first. But soon my yeses became firmer. The first picture below was nearly an Automatic No. It was a recent holiday, and we were at the mall. I was watching the kids play Skeeball at the arcade. I was cheering them on when out of the blue, my husband asked me if I wanted to play. He had enough coins if I wanted.
Initially I told him, “Nah.” But then I stopped myself. I asked myself what I really wanted, and it turns out, I DID want to play. I hadn’t been thinking through the offer. I had just been offering that dread Automatic No again.
But when I took a moment to mull it over, I remembered that Skeeball was my favorite arcade game as a child. It was the only game I ever played at Chuck E. Cheese, in fact. I had just assumed that “arcade games are for kids.” I never considered playing as an adult (even though my husband plays these games all the time).
So a minute later I nudged him and said, “Actually, I think I DO want to play this game.” And I did. He took this photo after I had just made a 40-point score. That look is not posed; it’s pure joy.
After Skeeball, we all played at the basketball machines — that’s the bottom photo. But I would never have tried my hand at basketball had I not rethought my original Skeeball “no.”
It’s hard at first to say “no” to the Automatic No, but it gets easier with practice. And with time, rejecting the Automatic No leads to a lot more fun in life. Little yes by little yes, we change our brains, and we change our lives.
So if you, like me, say NO to the fun far more frequently than is good for you, I dare you to go out and say YES to something today. Who knows? One little yes may be all that it takes to change everything.