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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