Most of my family and friends don’t see or know me as a very angry or resentful guy. But they don’t know the R-me, the Resentful me. And the reason they don’t know that part of me is because I do my best to protect them from coming into contact with the R-me … unless I’m ready and willing to work with whatever’s bothering me and renegotiate things through to mutual resolution. Which isn’t very often. Most often what I’m more willing to do is … Work On Myself Alone.
Resentment feels like a neurological inhibitor to me. Its energy feels contractive, constrictive. It feels like the energy of anger thwarted and diverted from direct expression. If I don’t skillfully attend to it, there’s a possibility it could smolder and grow into something the DSM-V(currently slated for publication in May, 2013) classifies as Intermittent Explosive Disorder. People don’t just wake up one day and decide to wreak havoc. There appear to be any number of causes for such behavior – from our genetic inheritance to a serotonin deficiency to abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex. I would add resentments unskillfully withheld to the list of causes.
In order not to amass a collection of withheld resentments, it’s probably a good idea to not collect even a few in the first place. Our kids and the people closest to us will be the obvious beneficiaries. But our own brain will benefit as well. So how exactly do we go about not stockpiling resentments?
The No’s Have It
The word “No” is an important resentment-preventing, limit-setting word. It’s a word that, when not used skillfully and sufficiently enough, Canadian palliative care physician, Gabor Maté believes helps create an environment that leads to serious illness. In other words, if we don’t practice saying “No” with words, our body will take over the job and say it for us, much as we used to do as kids. How many of us feigned illness as a way to say “No” in a world where we had little real control?
The inability to say “No” often and appropriately is also connected to Neuro-Inhibitor No. 3 in Stanford neurology professor, Robert Sapolsky’s Sequence of Four: Lack of Control. Lack of control is one of life’s major stressors, especially when we have responsibilities but not the power or authority to carry them out. That kind of stressful double-bind charges up the release of substances like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol – in chronic excess, all known neural growth inhibitors.
I consider the ability to say “No” clearly and effectively so important that I devoted a chapter to it in my book, Right Listening. Here are five different ways to learn and practice this critical skill:
1. The Direct “No”: “No” means “No”;
2. The Reflective “No”: we acknowledge the content and feeling of a request, then add the assertive refusal at the end;
3. The Reasoned “No”: we give a brief and genuine reason for the refusal without opening up further negotiation;
4. The Raincheck “No”: A way of saying “No” to a specific request without giving a definite “No”- “Let me think about it and get back to you.”
5. The Broken Record: Repeat the simple statement of refusal again and again. It’s often necessary to use this with persistent requests, especially from kids. Kids instinctively know when a “No” might have a flicker of “Yes” buried somewhere in it. Broken Record tends to remove any equivocation.
6. (Overdelivering). Don a Senior Mindset: Bruce Springsteen, on the Jimmy Fallon Show this past week, put it very succinctly: “When you get old, you can say ‘No’ to anything.” Imagining ourselves as senior citizens can help take away whatever concerns or anxiety we might have about delivering a challenging “No.”
Getting to Yes Through No
Practicing and learning to say “No” has much more upside than down. It often works to free us from many of the “shoulds” in our lives. It also helps us answer The Big Brain Question – Are You There For Me? – positively for our kids and others. When our “yes” means “Yes,” and our “no” means “No,” people know they can count on us to be real, to be reliable, to tell the truth even when it’s difficult or it might not be what others want to hear. Certainly a way of being in the world worth practicing, don’t you think?