When I Say No, I Actually Mean Yes

Albert Ellis, a pioneer of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and creator of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), taught that the key to living a healthier, happier life lies within the content of our thoughts – a premise based on the cognitive theory that our feelings largely stem from thinking. Ellis further explained, “when people change their beliefs or philosophy about something, their emotions and their behaviors also significantly change.” Numerous research studies have supported this theory.

How Thoughts and Feelings Influence Our Decisions

Two of the most powerful words in the English language are YES and NO. They can either create barriers or open doors, and many times these words can evoke positive or negative emotions within us. Regardless of the question being asked, YES feels positive (because it affirms), and NO feels negative (because it denies). Even when we are comfortable saying NO, it still can create a sense of disruption in the positive flow of things – within ourselves and between ourselves and others.

When our minds sense a negative occurrence, internal negative feelings can manifest as a change in overall demeanor. And for those who are not comfortable asserting themselves, having to say NO can actually create a sense of anxiety. Negative feelings often arise from concerns about disappointing others, or due to fear of being judged negatively for expressing disagreement.

Without a doubt, thoughts have the power to color our reality. Thoughts conjure feelings and, in turn, those feelings, positive or negative, can affect our frame of mind:


Basic principles of behavioral learning theory indicate that our responses and behaviors are learned; we learn to maximize pleasure and rewarding experiences, and to avoid pain and negative experiences. Therefore, according to this behavioral premise, if the thought of saying NO results in negative feelings, it is likely that you will avoid it whenever possible.

Given our understanding of how thoughts affect our feelings, is it possible to change the way we feel about saying NO by converting it into a positive response? I think it is indeed possible, and could be accomplished by reframing our personal understanding of what it actually means to say NO. Reframing is the process of placing a situation in a more positive frame.


Authenticity is a philosophical term which refers to the ability to be true to oneself. It means being true to our desires, beliefs, values, and standards, without wavering in the face of external pressure. It means:

  • Committing to our goals
  • Asserting our needs
  • Acting on our convictions
  • Keeping the promises we’ve made to ourselves

With this understanding, consider this: Any time we face a decision, it is a test of our authenticity.

Always Affirming

Q: When does NO mean YES?

A: Always

In light of reframing, it may become easier to say NO once we realize that we are in essence saying YES. Each time we say NO, we are saying YES to something very important – to our convictions, needs, values, and standards. Saying NO is about acknowledging our core truths and always saying YES to them. The word YES is affirming, which generates positive feelings. Therefore, reframing our decisions in a way that we are always thinking YES grounds us in a frame of always affirming, which is something for which we can feel positive.

How does this work in real life?

  • Each time we say NO to negative relationships, we are saying YES to our desire for love, respect, positivity, and peace.
  • Each time a student says NO to going out drinking with friends, choosing to study instead, they are saying YES to an activity that supports their academic goals.
  • Each time a young adult says NO to a career suggestion for which they have no interest, they are acknowledging and saying YES to their own interests and need for fulfillment.
  • Each time we say NO to unhealthy food choices, we are saying YES to a commitment to care for ourselves.

As illustrated above, focusing on the underlying affirmations can help us to feel more positive about saying NO.

Develop Your Superpower

As mentioned above, the words YES and NO wield a lot of power. This power, if used properly, transforms us into protectors of our own truths. Reframing our thinking to where we are always thinking YES, even when we say NO, is simply another way for our inner superheroes to use their powers for good.

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

~William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 82–84~

Personal Reflections:

  • Do you have a hard time saying NO?
  • Do you normally consider your core values and beliefs when making decisions?

Ellis, A. & Harper, R. A. (1997). A guide to rational living. Chatsworth, CA: Wilshire Book Company

*Image: Bowie15