• Eve Bernfeld

Is NO a Four-Letter Word?

Part 3: “Mind what you have learned. Save you it can.”



I spent the better part of a recent Friday trying to get ahold of Oregon Unemployment, to sort out my claim that dates back nearly six months. I spent about four hours dialing and redialing. When I finally got through, I was told I needed to speak to a specialist and was put on hold for an hour and a half. I never spoke to anyone else before the system shut down for the night. This is the second (or third?) time this has happened, but the first person I speak to assures me they cannot help me.

And yet, it wasn’t a terrible day. I have a hypothesis as to why not.

While you can do a lot of things with annoying hold music playing in the background, it’s nearly impossible to do anything else when pressing call/hangup a couple thousand times. I discovered I could fold laundry, which was handy, because I had about four loads of clean laundry that needed to be put away. But the coolest thing I discovered was that I could say, “No.”

I started using that as a game. Every time I dialed, I would say, softly but aloud to myself: “No.”

In early Alexander Technique lessons, I always suggest to my students that they make a practice of saying “No” or “Pause” or “Stop” or “I have time” to themselves many times per day. In Alexander Technique we call this Inhibition (in the sense of stopping/interrupting unwanted patterns, not in the sense of repression). I try to do this too, but it’s hard. We’re all busy and we’re all on automatic pilot (which is exactly why we need Inhibition) and before you know it, it’s time for bed. So sometimes it helps to tie Inhibition to a specific activity.

What better activity than something I have to do over and over and over again and which is totally stressing me out?

It was fascinating. Often when I said “No” I would notice a subtle decrease in tension around my shoulders. I would notice my breath moving. Then I’d forget about it for a few minutes, engaged as I was in the dual tasks of dialing and folding small t-shirts. And without fail I would find that I was feeling stressed and angry and weepy and overwrought. “No” I’d say again on the next call, and the next. And those feelings of hopelessness would dissipate as my shoulders released and my breath moved.

Let me be clear. I was not saying “No” to my feelings. This is a crucial distinction. Because even the best-intentioned Alexander student can fall into the trap of trying to use Inhibition to repress the uncomfortable. I was saying “No” in general. As a cue to give myself space. As a cue to STOP all the unnecessary behaviors I was getting up to—rushing, holding my breath, tensing my neck and shoulders, ruminating. And with the interruption of those behaviors, my emotional state lightened too.

You might say I “Lightened Up.” It was kind of like magic.

It’s entirely possible that “No” itself is not a magic word. It’s possible that I got such mileage out of it because I have been practicing saying “No” to myself for about 13 years. Maybe “Pause” or “Stop” or something else could have worked instead—for the no-phobic. Really all I suggest is that, when you are saddled with a tedious task, especially if you’re upset about it, that you give it a shot. Experiment. What have you got to lose?

One other great thing happened that day. After 3.5 hours of nonstop dialing, I decided to give myself a lunch break. Like a real break to put the phone down and sit outside. It was harder than it sounds, because you’d better believe I was feeling pretty compulsive about dialing after all that time. But I think I was able to do it because I had been practicing all that “No” before. I was just a little less attached.

Later in the afternoon, while I was starting on dinner, my son asked why I wasn’t dialing. I explained that I couldn’t dial and cook at the same time, so he offered to. Each of my kids had taken a turn that morning. And after about a dozen calls, he got through. Hallelujah! As you already know, that still didn’t do it, but hopefully he can work his magic again.

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