The all-knowing "No!"


My toddler grandson is about to turn two, and among the many new words he says—playground, garage, Daddy red car, Face Time, big hug—he still cherishes one of his very first words, "No!" It's such an important word at his age, giving him his first experience of contrariness as a way to separate from the adults around him. It's amazing how quickly he picked up on the power of "no!" I clearly remember my son at that age, refusing to climb into his car seat. A mother who had just exited the same event was hearing plenty of "no" from her daughter, too, and she raised her eyes to the skies. "Remember when it used to be so easy," I said across the car roof, and we both laughed. Of course "no" is a word that will serve my grandson well throughout life—a good, boundary setting word, one that he must learn to wield judiciously. 

The flip side of the word, however, is the "no" we internalize—the "no" of parents and teachers who are warning us or keeping us in line. For many of us, this becomes the unfortunate, all-knowing "no" that limits our ability to take constructive risks. I've been thinking about this lately, in relation to following my creative impulses. My brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex that governs my voluntary functions, thinks it is in charge, and like an over-anxious parent, uses the word "no" a lot. As I've come to understand it, "no" is a word that conveys certainty. If the brain voice says "no," then it knows it has control over the outcome—nothing new will happen. If it says "yes," then like a parent giving a teenager the car keys, it can't predict what will happen. Anything is possible!  If I'm trying to motivate myself to stretch in an unfamiliar creative direction, I'm much more likely to say "no," and convince myself with very adult reasons why something isn't a good idea. It's easier to control the outcome (no work) than to face the uncertainties of the process (possible failure, judgment, or rejection). It's good to understand this, because I'm learning to use "no" on that limiting brain voice. "No", I say back, "I don't believe you." "Sorry," I continue politely, "I'm going to do it anyway." And then I think of my grandson and laugh. He has the right approach. A no-nonsense "No!"