What Oprah Knows for Sure About Always Saying "Yes"
August 15, 2000
The late film critic Gene Siskel used to ask in his celebrity interviews, "What do you know for sure?" The first time he asked me this question, it threw me. Since then the question has become a way of taking stock of my life—hence this monthly column, in answer to Gene.
I was 40 years old before I learned to say no. I was consumed by the disease to please. The word yes would be out of my mouth before I even knew it.
After years of listening to other people's stories, I finally recognized where this came from for me. Having a history of abuse also meant a history of not being able to set boundaries. Once your personal boundaries have been violated as a child, it's difficult to regain the courage to stop people from stepping on you. You fear being rejected for who you really are. So for years, I spent my life giving everything I could to almost anyone who asked. I was running myself ragged trying to fulfill other people's expectations of what I should do and who I should be.
What cured me was understanding the principle of intention. In his book The Seat of the Soul, Gary Zukav says, "Every action, thought and feeling is motivated by an intention, and that intention is a cause that exists as one with an effect. If we participate in the cause, it is not possible for us not to participate in the effect. In this most profound way, we are held responsible for our every action, thought and feeling, which is to say, for our every intention."
I started to examine the intention behind my saying yes when I really meant no. I was saying yes so people wouldn't be angry with me, so they would think I was a nice person. My intention was to make people feel I was the one they could call on, count on, last minute, no matter what. And that was exactly what my experiences reflected—a barrage of requests in every aspect of my life.
On April 10, 1994, I wrote these words, which I keep on my desk: "Never again will I do anything for anyone that I do not feel directly from my heart. I will not attend a meeting, make a phone call, write a letter, sponsor or participate in any activity in which every fiber of my being does not resound yes. I will act with the intent to be true to myself."
When I accepted that I was a decent, kind and giving person—whether I said yes or no—I no longer had anything to prove. I was once afraid of people saying, "Who does she think she is?" Now I have the courage to stand and say, "This is who I am."