Was Nancy Reagan right? How just saying NO can change your life

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One of the questions that persists in my working life is "How can I help people find out what work they are meant to do?"

Career assessments, online personality profiles and analytical tools can help answer the question, but they often fall short.  This is because while addressing "What do I think I should do?", they fail to address "What do I feel I should do?"  Many people who have stewed in corporate jobs for a long time tell me that after so many years stuffing their emotions, they don’t feel much of anything. 

Martha Beck and I discussed this awhile back in a podcast interview and today on her blog, I introduce the first of a two-part exercise pulled from her book Finding Your Own North Star that really gets to the meat of the question.  Here is the introduction to the article Was Nancy Reagan right?  How just saying NO can change your life:


I knew my soon-to-be three-year-old son Josh had achieved a new level of negotiation finesse when his vigorous "NO" was tempered into "No Thank You."  It is hard to get angry at a little man who is exceedingly polite about totally refusing to do anything I ask him. 

"Josh, stop throwing Legos at the wall and GET YOUR SHOES ON."
"No thank you Mom!"

"Get off that little boy and stop choking him Josh — he doesn’t like to play rough!"
"No thank you Mom!"

"Josh, you have to eat your veggies if you want to be big and strong like Spiderman!"
"No thank you Mom, pass the Cheetos!"

Do you see what I mean?

Josh’s outright refusal to comply with my requests are the manifestation of a very clearly expressed essential self. Unencumbered by the need to please anyone but himself, he feels perfectly empowered to tell me and anyone else who will listen that he will NOT do anything that doesn’t feel good.

The concept of essential and social self was described in Martha’s book Finding Your Own North Star:

    "Your essential self formed before you were born, and it will remain until you’ve shuffled off your mortal coil.  It ‘s the personality you got from your genes:  your characteristic desires, preferences, emotional reactions and involuntary physiological responses, bound together by an overall sense of identity.  It would be the same whether you’d been raised in France, China, or Brazil, by beggars or millionaires.  It’s the basic you, stripped of options and special features.  It is "essential" in two ways:  first, it is the essence of your personality, and second, you absolutely need it to find your North Star.

    The social self on the other hand, is the part of you that developed in response to pressures from the people around you, including everyone from your family to your first love to the pope. As the most socially dependent of mammals, human babies are born knowing that their very survival depends on the goodwill of the grown-ups around them.  Because of this, we’re all literally designed to please others.  Your essential self was the part of you that cracked your first baby smile; you social self noticed how much Mommy loved that smile, and later reproduced it at exactly the right moment to convince her to lend you the down payment on a condo.  You still have both responses.  Sometimes you smile involuntarily, out of amusement or silliness or joy, but many of your smiles are based purely on social convention."

Since writing her newest book, Steering by Starlight, this definition has been updated:

"I used to think of the human psyche as having two sides:  the
"essential" self, which determines our talents and preferences, and the
"social" self, which predisposes us to respond to other people’s influence.  Over the past few years I’ve also come to believe there is
a third self, one that goes beyond the boundaries of both the genetic
and social selves.  Buddhists call this "no-self," a confusing term
meant  to focus our attention on something the intellect can’t grasp.
Other traditions call it the great Self, an identity that is shared by
everything that exists.  I’m going to call it the Stargazer, because it
never loses sight of your own North Star, your destiny."

Pressure on the essential self

If Josh’s life progresses along the path that most of us take, as the years go by, his willful determination will be tested by nagging parents (me and Darryl), zealous teachers, managers, mentors and eventually a spouse.  His natural inclination to only do what feels good will be tempered by the need to please others.

I am going to hope that between his life coach Mom and medicine man Dad that he will still turn out a happy, confident and balanced young man (Meet you back here in 20 years to see how my predictions turn out, deal?).

But here is the interesting part:  Josh’s inner NO won’t go away, it will just go underground.

For some people, it gets buried so deep that they can’t even hear it anymore.  Some don’t believe it exists!  That is when Martha and I hear our clients say things like:

  • I don’t know what I am passionate about
  • I don’t even know what I feel
  • I am not sure which decision to make – should I stay or should I go?

For these situations, identifying your inner NO is the first step in reconnecting your essential and social selves.

Ready to try?  Read the rest here.

5 Responses to “Was Nancy Reagan right? How just saying NO can change your life”

  1. Great post! I experienced this over the period of several years. Once I realized I didn’t want to be in the corporate world any longer, it took me a while to get in touch with that inner passion that had been buried for so long. It was like a flame that was slowly burning out….

    The process was not an easy one, but it was so worth it! I tried several business ideas that were all about making money and getting me out of my corporate job. When I finally found my passion and made money irrelevant, things began to align and move quickly. I’m not saying money isn’t important, but it can’t be the key driver for starting a business.

  2. I have long been a huge fan of this line of thinking. I’ve read all of the classics — Barbara Sher, Ruth Ross, Julia Cameron. I realized a few years ago that this methodology had fallen short for me. At any given time, I could have laid out my vision in vivid detail; by age 10, I’d found the lifestyle for which I’m ideally suited and never lost sight of it. The trouble was and remains difficulty manifesting that lifestyle while making a living! Ironically, I’ve worked with many coaches and career counselors who disbelieved the core part of the vision — they cannot reconcile my being interested in people yet wanting to spend the majority of the day in solitude. Seems like the perfect profile for a writer to me!

  3. Fran says:

    Thank you! this is a great way to get to the heart of the emotional matter of really seeing what we are feeling inside..that “yucky” feeling that lives inside but doesn’t always get enough connection to our “NO, thank you’s.” You have nailed this one right on the head. I think when you are three, this response is well connected and the trick is to revive it. I have someone in my life that would tell me and validate “You are making that yucky face again.” to remind me of my true feelings of a person or situation. Just yesterday, while going through some boxes of papers from my life, I had an aha! moment, where I could see that the most creative and fun work (all of which I created for myself) was the most effortless and still stood the test of time in feeling right. I have moved away from that self, and this simple encounter, made it all clear again, what direction to take now in my life. Going in the direction of what most creates such gutteral response of “YES!” lives on a very vibrant vibration. I acted today on this knowledge by writing a very interesting and creative organization to do some work together. It was effortless to take that leap, because the connection had been made again and renewed of what really feeds my soul.

  4. The question about one’s life purpose comes up often now that we have developed to the point that many of us can sense our spiritual being more clearly. It is not always a logical question. We just know there is something to life, something more than paying bills. Our Higher Self (superconscious) calls us. Kids can sense it more clearly than adults who have lost this sensing capability through years of denial.

  5. I would add that his natural inclination will also be tempered by a moral compass that would be able to weigh that which feels good or that which is expedient, with that which is right (appropriate, virtuous, effective, etc.).

    I am fortunate in that my essential self has always been fairly obvious to me – and to others apparently. There has never been a time I did not know what I was passionate about (Writing, Music, and Relationships). The challenge is – to some extent – battling (or adjusting) the social self’s perception of what is responsible & possible.

    I am, however, enjoying the process.