One of my less appealing qualities is my desire to control situations and fix things. And people. Ok mostly people. Probably the most valuable lesson I learnt whilst training as a yoga therapist was the value of holding space – of simply accompanying somebody as they share their story and not leaping in to fix it. Ok them. Not leaping in to fix them. (Because they don’t need fixing, they’re not broken. Honestly, a straightjacket and gag might have been useful in the early stages of my studies.) And whilst I hope I eventually developed a degree of competence in practising this as a therapist, my personal life is a whole different ballgame – I’ve always been a terrible ‘yes, but’ person. ‘Yes but look on the bright side’…. ‘Yes but what about?’ and the worst one: ‘Yes but what if?’
Ugh. I’m honestly surprised more people haven’t slapped me.
‘Yes but’ detracts, negates, invalidates; it closes down enquiry and exploration. ‘Yes but’ says ‘you’re wrong and I’m right’, or ‘I don’t really want to have this conversation’ or ‘I don’t trust you to figure this out for yourself’. It says ‘I can’t or won’t hear what you’re trying to tell me and I’m definitely not going to hold space for you because I’m uncomfortable hearing this so I’m going to shut you down’. Even in its most apparently well-meaning form of trying to cheer someone up, it shuts them down from processing their experience by talking.
Like I said: unappealing.
Also: it’s possible to change the entire conversation by switching ‘but’ for ‘and’.
‘Yes, and ’ has a totally different feel to it. Try it in your head. Have an imaginary conversation where you tell someone your cool new idea or a problem and they go ‘yes but….’. Then repeat it but change the response to ‘yes, and…..’. Right?! How different does that feel?!
‘Yes, and’ is expansive and invites further discussion. It’s encouraging and exploratory. It says ‘I’m listening; I’m interested; I’m in this with you’.
And I only figured this out when I stopped yes-butting myself. You see, a huge part of yes-butting is driven by fear of feelings – certainly this was true in my case. I haven’t always been very keen on (read: petrified of) feelings. When I began therapy in my thirties, I genuinely thought that ‘crying’ was an emotion. If I did accidentally have a feeling, I was impressively armoured with a variety of ways to numb, stifle or squash the damn thing, and my handy go-to pocket armour was ‘yes but’, aka denial. And that, at its heart, is what yes-butting is about. Denying. Shutting down. Refusing to simply be with a feeling, an idea, a person, in curious awareness. It is the opposite of holding space. It is the opposite of listening. And since I started practising just allowing my feelings to be what they are, however unpalatable; since I got curious about emotions and stopped shutting myself down; since I stopped yes-butting myself and started just holding space and using yes-and, I’ve found it dramatically easier to do the same with and hold space for others.
Look, it’s a practice; a work in progress. I’m getting better at finding that fraction of a second’s pause to change my response, both to myself and others. A major premise of yoga therapy is that you already have everything – all the answers, all the wisdom you need – you may just need a little help to get to it. Shutting ourselves – or others – down, isn’t the way. Getting curious with a ‘yes, and’ just might be.