Saying No Without Feeling Guilty

Sometimes we don’t have a choice — our boss tells us to put the new coversheets on all the TPS reports and all we can say is, “Sure, no problem!” Other times we don’t want to say no — it can feel great to say yes. We’re delighted to be of service and to help a fellow human, whether it’s someone we love or a complete stranger. Sometimes no is the best answer. Say no to picking up an extra shift on your birthday, running the elementary bake sale when your kid has moved on to middle school, or doing anything at all when you’re sick and trying to recuperate.
Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist and author.
Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist and author.

It’s a toddler’s favorite word. But as we grow up, those two little letters become harder and harder to articulate. This article explores how to say no and not feel bad about it.

Requests for our time, energy, and attention get thrown at us all day long. We can’t say yes to them all. If we take on everything, we end up doing nothing well and burn ourselves out in the process. This all makes sense. But saying no is hard. Why is it so difficult?

Why Is Learning To Say No So Difficult?

  1. One reason is that we like to help out. It feeds our self-esteem. We like to feel like we can do it all, that people can always count on us, or that we’re supermom, superdad, supersister, whomever. When we first start to flex that  “no” muscle, it can feel wrong. We may feel less-than, like we’re falling short. But consider what you’d gain. When we stop overextending, stop spreading ourselves too thin, and stop trying to please everyone, we gain time, energy, and self-respect. Plus, when we do say yes, we know we can do a good job.
  2. A second reason we don’t say no is because we worry our requestor will be mad at us. And while that is a possibility, a far more likely scenario is that they’ll be momentarily disappointed, but will understand and move on to the next person. You can always use yourself as a reasonable comparison — when someone says no to you, do you fly off the handle and vow never to speak to them again, your forehead veins bulging and eyelids twitching? Probably not. Therefore, let go of the double standard and assume that reasonable others will react just as you would: that is, reasonably.
  3. The third reason we don’t say no is that uncomfortable feeling of guilt. We don’t want to feel guilty, so when we get a request we pull at our collar and mumble, “Uh….sure,” but end up trading that feeling of guilt for resentment or overwhelm. Therefore, consider this: guilt is an emotion for when we do something wrong. While saying “no” might feel like we’re doing something wrong, let’s take a closer look. This is a common thinking trap called emotional reasoning. For example, have you ever felt jealous and concluded your partner must be cheating? Or maybe you’ve felt incompetent and concluded you must be hopelessly stupid? The same mistake happens with guilt. Often, when we feel guilty, we think we’ve done something wrong. But delivered with kindness and respect, a no is never wrong.

Read more: Often the inability to say no causes stress at the workplace. Discover how to unveil common stressors and de-stress at work.

So now, let’s talk about how to say no politely and effectively. I’ll give you four ways:

A ‘No’ Is Never Wrong:  How To Say No Politely, Effectively & Without Guilt

Connect With Empathy

Even if you can’t take on the favor, it makes your requestor feel good to know you acknowledge and understand them. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment, even if you can’t take on part of their load.

For instance, you could say “I’m so sorry I can’t help out more this season. I know it must be tough to recruit volunteer coaches when all the parents are so busy. ” Or you could say, “I’ve learned not to loan my truck out for moving anymore. I’m really sorry — I know moving down the block is just as hard as moving to another state.”

Read more: When we understand what others are feeling and share in those feelings without being carried away, we’re able to react appropriately to these feelings — explore why empathy is important and three practices to increase it.

Turn The No Into A Compliment

Wrapping a no in a genuine compliment is a nice way to turn a potentially negative emotion into a positive one. So for instance, you could say, “I’m so sorry I can’t be in charge of the school garden this year, though I really appreciate you putting in this time and energy for the kids.” Or you could say, “You’re working so hard to make such a beautiful baby shower for your sister. She’s so lucky to have you. I wish I could take more of it off your hands.”

You can even do this with solicitors — rather than pretending you’re not home, give them a smile, tell them no, but also say that they’re doing important work and you wish them the best of luck. Everyone will leave feeling good.

But what about sticky situations when your requestor won’t take no for an answer?

You may get pushback, or people may try to wear you down (anyone who’s ever lived with a persistent kid has experienced this!) In that case, use the classic Broken Record Technique from Dialectical Behavior Therapy. It works like this: when your requestor asks again and again, just give the same answer again and again. You don’t have to be a soulless droid about it — you can listen, be understanding, and even give them a hug, but stick to your guns.

If your original “no” slowly transforms into “maybe later” and then to “okay, fine,” your requestor will lean on your even harder next time. Better to be consistent the first time than have to fight the battle again and again later.

Read more: Mindfulness expert Tara Brach explains the principles of how to let go of anger. She uncovers the responsibility of our own experience and how we can alter our anger patterning.

Finally, what if they turn up the pressure? What if they implore you to say yes?

Remember, you are not Obi-Wan Kenobi. In other words, very seldom are you truly someone’s only hope. In almost every situation, your requestor has options and alternatives. Saying no doesn’t shut them down — it just sends them in a different direction. Trust that your requestor is resourceful — it’s a testament to your estimation of them to trust that they have the wherewithal and good judgment to work it out.

Read more: It’s almost as if self-consciousness is our default mode. Explore how to stop caring about what others think and take back your personal power.

How To Present A No

Essentially, “no” is all in how you present it. If you fling a “no” like a handful of mud, it won’t be effective or appreciated. But if you present a “no” with politeness and respect, it’s like wrapping it with a beautiful bow. With some time and practice, you’ll be a ninja at saying no.

Meditate with Dr. Ellen Hendriksen and let go of worry and anxiety. This practice invites you to gently search the mind and body for anxiety, thank it for its service, and gradually let it go:

  1. Let Go Of Worry And Anxiety Ellen Hendriksen 6:12

Meditation. Free.
Always.