When I started my PhD studies I remember arriving at the university and seeing the corridor walls decorated with motivational quotes from local athletic heroes. One of which has stayed with me all these years and location changes later. The advice was to "say yes to everything!" It's useful advice when you are new, inexperienced, and trying to find your way in life but saying yes to everything when taken literally, can be a recipe for over-commitment. Indeed last weekend I happened to see the old Jim Carey comedy "The Yes Man" which comically shows us the perils of taking this advice too literally.
Many people struggle to say no to things and there can be many reasons for this. For example, there might be a pattern of behaviour where saying yes to more powerful people leads to over-commitment, or when lack of boundaries creates a "yes" expectation. Another pathway to the overuse of "yes" is recognising the value in a certain course of action even though you are already overstretched in another direction. This could be an ethical situation, a moment or commitment to do the right thing, when doing the right thing might compromise other "right things" that you're already doing. You might also have a fear of missing out, or a need for control that helps you to be unskilled in the use of the word no. Most importantly people can lose sight of their ability and right to decline. There is a complete loss of sight of the non-yes option.
One philosophical viewpoint that can help with the chronic overuse of the word yes is to assess this situation using something called the unity of opposites.
The unity of opposites is thought to have first been introduced to Western thinking by pre-socratic Greek thinker Heraclitus (c. 535- c. 475 BC) and, in a nutshell, helps us to redefine situations in
relation to the options that we have. Importantly it can help us see that we do have options all the time, especially when we believe that we don't.
The philosophy states that the quality of a situation can only be experienced because of the co-existence of at least two conditions which are in direct opposition to one another. This means that I can only experience my desire to say yes because of the existence of the option of not saying yes.
When we apply this thinking to over-commitment or getting into situations that we don't really want for ourselves we can assess the reality that in saying yes to certain projects, and courses of action we are simultaneously not saying yes to a full range of alternative courses of action.
So it's really important to assess that when you say "Yes" you are always saying "Yes" to your goals and values. The minute you say "Yes" to something that's not in line with what you want you slip out of integrity and are saying "No" to what you want and who you are.
The unity of opposites philosophy shows us that we are always saying yes and no in equal proportion. If we are overwhelmed or not on a path that we want we are simply saying No to the wrong things. Maybe it's saying no to proactively preparing and yes to another binge-watch. Maybe is saying no to going to bed at a decent hour and yes to hanging out with friends who don't really understand what it takes to perform at an excellent level.
The important point is to remember that, when we take the unity of opposites into account, it's impossible to be a person that "can't say no". It is, more accurately, possible to get your NO and your YES decisions tangled up and focused in the wrong direction.