road sign that says "nope"

How to say no without guilt

Saying no can be the kindest thing you do

Rethinking what No means

We live in a world with billions of people. Modern life, and our many roles and relationships in it, flood us with more requests and opportunities than ever before. That’s ok. We can say no. To be truly successful and to have time in our lives for the things that bring us joy, we all need to stand by our own priorities and say no to a lot of requests and opportunities. So why do so many of us refuse this power to choose and stay stuck in feeling obligated to say yes to everything?

Our present-day culture has led most of us to internalize the falsehood that saying no is somehow mean or hurtful. This is us especially the case for women, who are fed extra large doses of people-pleasing socialization as soon as we’re out of the womb. Clearly this puts us in a horrible conundrum: say yes to everything and burn ourselves out trying to be “nice” or say no and feel guilty for “being mean.” There is no way out if we continue to believe (wrongly) that saying no is mean. 

There is nothing inherently hurtful about being told no. It is simply an expression of your own ability to choose what is best for you in that moment. Parents still say no to their toddlers out of love all the time (otherwise most of them would literally kill themselves by accident at some point). I say no to myself all the time to keep myself safe and healthy, and I bet you do too. So why do we think that other people can’t handle a no? Being honest about what you actually want to do, whether it’s a yes or a no, is the true expression kindness. You are the only one who knows the time and energy resources you have available and the only one who gets to decide how to spend them. No one has to take a “no” as rejection. How do you like it when someone agrees to your request out of obligation? Would you prefer an honest no? Then consider offering them.

Valuing honesty over false yesses

The practice of saying yes when you really mean no is also called people-pleasing. These false yesses are designed to placate others, or convince them to think of us a certain way. There is an epidemic of people-pleasing, especially among women, because of our heavy socialization to literally be pleasing to others. It comes at a high cost. It’s not possible to people-please your way to long-term joy or success in modern life. There are simply too many requests to do so without burning out and sacrificing your own authentic self. People-pleasing also has emotional side effects. It always breeds resentment (after all, you are saying yes when you really want to say no), and that poisons relationships.

One of the most important things you can do to nurture your joy and relationships is learn to say no honestly and unapologetically. Step one is recognizing that for every “yes” we say, there is a hidden “no.” You can’t say yes without saying no to something— usually yourself and your own desires. For example, saying yes to after-hours email is saying no to personal time. Saying yes to doing something we don’t enjoy doing is saying no to our own preferences. Identifying what your trade-offs are will help you inventory where your yesses may not match up with your values and priorities.

The Gift of No

When we are grounded in our own priorities and desires, we can say “no thanks” from a place of kindness and honesty. Most well-adjusted people can hear a kindly meant “no” without taking offense, and many people will appreciate the honesty. They can recognize that the refusal is meant to preserve the relationship and avoid failing to deliver or becoming resentful. Another benefit of saying no when we want to is that it makes it easier for people to trust us when we say yes. They can trust that we really mean yes. We really want to do it. We will follow through. Of course, there will always be exceptions, and some people will get mad at you for saying no. Usually these are people who are temporarily blinded by their own wants while under pressure, and they will come around soon. Sometimes you will run into people who are unwilling to treat others’ desires as equally important to their own. Their issues are their own to sort through and you are not responsible for rescuing them.

The more you practice offering no as a gift, the more you’ll also find gratitude for polite refusals from others. Below are some exercises to build your no muscles.

Your No-Yes Inventory

Write down all the things you actually did or spent time on during the last week. For each item on your list, consider very honestly what you said no to in order to say yes to that item. Write the thing you had to say no to down in another column. You will have a column of “Yesses” and a column of “No’s.” Look over these columns as non-judgmentally as possible. See where your Yes column has items that you do to please others, not yourself. Your goal is not to berate yourself. It’s to see how well your time aligns or misaligns with your priorities. Where are you happy with your yesses? What do you find yourself spending time or effort on that is truly just to please other people? What do you want to say yes to more often? What do you want to say no to more often?

Your Gracious No Toolbox

First, spend some time considering ways to say “no” kindly, in advance, so that you are ready to respond to other people’s requests in ways that feel comfortable. Sometimes we say yes because we are simply un-practiced at saying no. A refusal does not have to even use the word “no” to be effective. To do this, write down a list of ways to say no that feel good to you. This is your No Toolbox. Consider the enormous variety of alternatives, like “Thank you for the offer, but now is not a good time.” Or, “I need to decline right now, but I’d like to do it another time” (if this is true). Try searching online for “ways to say no” if you get stumped. See which ones feel most authentic to you. Try not to apologize for your refusals unless you are truly sorry.

Second, consider what kind of guidance or rules you might like to make it easy to remind yourself when you need to say no. Setting a rule can help you maintain integrity with your own desires and priorities, even when you are tempted to say yes to please others. My rule is, “if it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no, thanks.” For me, that means that if I am not super jazzed about something, or it doesn’t fit in my top priority list, I commit to figuring out a way to gracefully say no. What rule or guidance feels good to you?

Now go forth and practice! If you’d like a step-by-step guide to help you and some examples of gracious ways to say no, sign up for my email newsletter and you’ll get these things right away.

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The Stress-As-Motivation Myth (and why it’s harming you)

There is a common myth that driving ourselves with stress is somehow necessary to get shit done. Sound familiar?

Do you use how much you get done in a day to praise or condemn yourself? As a grad student, I used to congratulate myself for crossing off a full to-do list, but most days I rode myself hard for “not doing enough.” I was on a roller-coaster of overwork, with heavy-duty productivity days, working too many hours and through non-existent breaks, followed by days of epic burnout, when I did virtually nothing but snack, day-drink, and watch TV. I firmly believed that I had to be stressed out in order to get work done. Fundamentally, this was because I thought I was lazy. I used the burnout days as evidence that left to my own devices, I would be a slug. I only learned differently when this whole cycle became unsustainable and I reached out to a coach. Then I learned the truth.

The truth is, I am not lazy. And if this sounds like you, you’re not lazy either. You’re exhausted.
You’re exhausted from riding yourself too hard. You’re exhausted from overworking while ignoring the need for rest that is baked into your body and mind as a human being. Those burnout days are not evidence of laziness. They are evidence of an unsustainable level of overwork.

The other truth, and maybe the one that is more radical to consider, is that driving ourselves with anxiety about our to-do list is not actually motivating. You are getting things done despite your stress, not because of it. Stress and anxiety are emotions that drive very predictable actions for humans, which are to hide and avoid. Think about it. Remember back to when you have been very anxious about a project. When feeling anxious, did you truly want to do it or did you really want to avoid it? We get to the doing when we fear the consequences of our avoidance, usually right up near the deadline (which is where the consequences of avoidance start overtaking our fear of the thing itself). All of this is the emotional underpinning of procrastination, but it also plays out daily for a lot of people who don’t identify as procrastinators. I didn’t identify as a procrastinator, but I certainly played this game. It was only when I stepped off this roller-coaster that I realized the enormous amount of time and energy I was spending trying to push myself to do things.

Each task is a hill. Every day, you pick up a bully at the bottom of the hill, put him on your back, and trudge up the hill with him yelling at you the entire way. You get to the top exhausted. After doing this many times, you start to think that you need this bully yelling in your ear to get up the hill. You think he is motivating you when he’s just adding to your load.

The idea of stress-as-motivation, and our pervasive culture of productivity-at-all-costs, is frankly harmful. There is a reason medical doctors increasingly warn about stress (a catch-all term for negative emotions of anxiety, fear, and overwhelm that are associated with high levels of cortisol in the body). It’s harming us. Work-related stress in the U.S. and Canada is particularly high, especially for women. In many nations, work-related stress contributes strongly to pervasive health issues including diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders.

Many of these same nations have strong cultural messages that productivity bestows the right to self-worth. Culturally, productivity is especially compulsory for anyone who is not rich, white, and male. Economic systems, religious history, and white-supremacist patriarchy have all contributed to the underlying narrative that humans — especially BIPOC, women, and poor people — are inherently lazy and sinful.

It’s no wonder that there is such big money in purported “relaxation” — whether in the form of substances (sugar, alcohol, etc.) or other escapes (phone and video games, TV, gambling, shopping). We have a hard time powering down and really resting these days. And when we do, we feel guilty. Unless we’re doing something that falls into another culturally “acceptable” category, such as fitness or caretaking. This is especially true for women since the cultural narrative for “goodness” in women rests on self-sacrifice and male-approved looks.

However, just because stress-as-motivation and productivity-as-worthiness are common cultural messages doesn’t make them true. It is not necessary to feel guilty for fulfilling the basic human need for rest. You are allowed to stop. Breathe. Do absolutely nothing. You don’t have to keep these values once you realize that they are harming you. Stressing out about your tasks is actually optional. When I learned that I could actually just do the work I chose to do without all the productivity anxiety, everything took less time and energy. You can put down the bully. Just walk up the hill. It will be so much easier and more pleasurable.

The Counter-Intuitive Productivity Hack: Rest More
Your life does not have to fall apart if you give yourself permission to rest. If you cut yourself some slack, it does not mean that you will binge TV every day for the rest of your life and die in a puddle of ice cream.
Of course, if you haven’t let yourself rest much, you might need to catch up a bit. Yes, you actually might need to give yourself permission to recharge without shame, which undermines full rest. Consider it a grand challenge. Consider how you could truly wind down (hot tip: occupying your brain with doom-scrolling doesn’t count). If you allow yourself true rest without shame, you will notice that once you are rested, you get antsy. We are not built to do anything forever. We are too curious, too motivated…too bored. This is human nature. We are driven to do, to make, to explore, to engage. But we need to balance that with rest, play, and relaxation. The place of balance is the sweet spot of creativity. The place where you can bring your best self to your work and your people.
Start Here
So, how do you stop forcing yourself around the hamster wheel? How do you engage with work without all the stress?
Catch up on rest if you are exhausted. You may need a few days. If you can’t take them totally off, then scale back effort and just do the bare minimum for a week. Notice that the world does not fall apart. Then, start identifying what thoughts and emotions actually do to help you accomplish tasks without drama. Cultivate those. I recommend a journal. Try out different ways of talking to yourself intentionally: like telling yourself that it will probably be easier than you think, that you’re excited to see the end result, that the process will teach you something, or that you’re good at this — all of these can be helpful. Find the ones that work for you. Notice when you’re intimidated by a task and break it down into the smallest pieces you can, so small that each action is too easy to be scary. That will help you believe it actually is easy to take action on the task (which is why this common piece of anti-procrastination advice actually works: because it helps you believe action is easy).
The Payoff
You can do work because you find it interesting, enjoyable, or because you simply enjoy getting paid. Without the drama. You can do work, then stop, rest, and choose not to worry about what you did or didn’t get done today. You can choose not to worry about what you have decided to do tomorrow or the next day. You can trust yourself to show up with your talents and creativity and get done whatever you have decided to get done.
This doesn’t remove all stress in the life of course, but it does remove a large chunk of the optional stress you’ve been inadvertently choosing if you’ve been driving yourself with to-do list anxiety. When you are free to do work because you truly want to, it actually makes the work go so much more quickly and easily. Rather than the fear of not working, you’ll find that you get so much more done than it actually seems like magic. It’s not. It’s really just basic cognitive theory — your brain works best when you are on board, not when you are fighting yourself. Working from this place, you’ll be able to set healthy boundaries with yourself about when you work and when you rest.
I learned to make this true for me and I invite you to do the same. When you unhook your self-worth from your productivity, you actually can get more done, more joyfully. It’s counterintuitive but absolutely true. Bullying yourself takes an inordinate amount of your energy and time. Stopping is liberating and joyful.
Living this way doesn’t come from a single decision, but a single decision can get you started. What if you decided today that you won’t beat yourself up about productivity anymore? That you are enough no matter what? This isn’t a bullshit affirmation — you are not trying to fool yourself. Instead, the goal is just to notice what is already true and reject social conditioning to the contrary. Just try saying it out loud: “It’s possible that I am enough, no matter what I get done today.” Practice believing that.
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