“If our hearts and minds are so unreliable, maybe we should be questioning our own intentions and motivations more. If we’re all wrong, all the time, then isn’t self-skepticism and the rigorous challenging of our own beliefs and assumptions the only logical route to progress?” ~Mark Manson
I often hear people encourage others with the following advice: “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.”
Don’t get me wrong: I see where they’re coming from when they say it. Far too often we are dissuaded from listening to our gut feelings. Often, we follow the tyranny of shoulds. We compromise on our true needs and desires. We talk the inner voice away in favor of what’s expected of us.
And yet I also see how this well-intended nugget of wisdom eliminates grey area. The more black-and-white view of the world that it inadvertently espouses may not be entirely helpful to everyone, especially those who struggle with depression or anxiety.
Sometimes a maybe or an underwhelmed response means I don’t really want to do this. Other times it can mean I’m having complicated feelings that are worth unpacking and investigating.
We often feel ambivalent about taking part in experiences that are outside of our comfort zones, even if those experiences may help us to grow. Our moods or current struggles can affect our commitment to activities we might ordinarily enjoy.
Back in college when I was in the throes of a serious depression, for instance, I felt no pull to do anything—not even hobbies that I used to love. I said no to jogging and running. No to preparing nutritious meals. No to any experience that might bring me outside of my safe cocoon.
The only activities I said hell yes to were invitations to go out and get wasted at house parties with friends—which, needless to say, made my depression even worse and perpetuated a vicious cycle.
I wasn’t hell yes about healthy things. Drinking and escaping my pain were the only activities that elicited anything close to a passionate response from me.
If I had misapplied the above advice, I might still be drinking in problematic ways and eschewing more mindful activities that align with my values, simply because I don’t always feel hell yes about doing them.
Another example: a friend of mine told me there are weeks when she reads an hour before bed, and that the experience is lovely. When she becomes embroiled in a Netflix show, though, that habit dissolves. The thought of reading loses its appeal. Does this mean she doesn’t like reading? Is it a sign that she inherently prefers TV?
I don’t think it is. What I do think it means is that activities involving passive consumption often have addictive properties.
As David Foster Wallace wrote: “Television’s biggest minute by minute appeal is that it engages without demanding. One can rest while undergoing stimulation. Receive without giving.”
Other examples: I’m drawn to sugar. Consuming it “feels right.” Picking up a celery stick feels more difficult. It doesn’t come as naturally.
At certain points back in 2012 (before I moved to Uruguay), I wavered in my decision to teach abroad in South America.
In 2019, when I considered the work and planning involved (as well as the money it would require), I even felt hesitant to take a vacation to Mexico City. Doubts and conflicting feelings dampened my “hell yes” into a “I don’t know, maybe….” shortly after my friend invited me.
Did I still go, though? Yes! Did I have an amazing time? Also yes. Do I wish I could go back? One hundred percent.
My point is this: don’t let ambivalence or a lack of “hell yes” convince you that you must just not really want to do something.
It’s important to develop trust in our inner knowing; however, it’s also important to remember that our not always benevolent impulses sometimes masquerade as wise intuition.
Even though we might pick up on a bad feeling, we never know what that bad feeling means. It could mean so many things. Instincts never come with clear instructions.
That’s why it’s so hard to “just listen to them.” Listen to what? What action do we take in response to “this feels bad”?
As for the hell yeses: especially for those of us with mental health struggles, immediate impulses and strong instantaneous reactions at times warrant further unpacking before being acted upon or blindly obeyed. It’s just not always true that they unequivocally have our best long-term interests in mind.
A lack of an instant “hell yes” doesn’t necessarily signify that something isn’t right for us. It’s important that we allow room in our lives for the grey area, so as to ultimately act in alignment with our highest selves.