By Megan Bearce – LMFT, Cynthia Pickett – LCSW, LADC, Amanda Patterson – LMHC, Elizabeth Baum – M.A., MFT, Linda McKenney – Personal Life Coach, Wendy Dingee – MS, LCPC, LCADC, BCC, Brett McDonald – M.S., LMHC

How To Say No Without Feeling Guilty

“You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage pleasantly, smilingly, and non-apologetically – to say no to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger yes burning inside.”

~ Stephen Covey

When You Say Yes To Others Make Sure You are Not Saying No To Yourself Quote
Megan Bearce

With more demands being made of our time than ever, being able to say no is a skill everyone should develop.

In the fabulous book Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters, author Dr. Joann Deak dedicates an entire chapter to the issue of girls and people pleasing behavior.

Not wanting to disappoint others is a habit that can form early and if left unchecked, can add unnecessary stress to our lives well into adulthood.

So how do you say no?

The best way I have found I learned while training to become a therapist. A supervisor warned that in the mental health profession it is easy to become overwhelmed and it was important for us to learn to say no.

Her advice to us: When asked to do something, answer, “Can I take a day to think about it and get back to you?”

This simple, yet respectful response gives you time to not only check your schedule to see if you can, but also make sure you have the physical and emotional resources to take on an additional commitment.

If you find that you can’t or don’t want to, the next day you can go back to the person and say, honestly, “I’ve thought about it and I just can’t fit another thing on my plate but I appreciate you thinking of me.”

If they are upset or disappointed, or worse, try to make you feel guilty, that is on them to sort through.

Guilt is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong” so to feel “guilty” about saying no really doesn’t make sense.

Everyone has the right to self-care, to make his or her own family a priority, or to pursue a personal goal. If taking on another commitment you don’t have time for or interest in interferes with those, is it really a good choice for you to make?

When I speak to groups, I always share my 3 mottos for reducing stress and they are:

  1. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to.
  2. The “should” shouldn’t make you feel bad.
  3. You can always change your mind.

If you are being pressured by someone to say yes, repeat these three mottos to yourself.

They will help reinforce confidence in your decision to say no.

Megan Bearce, LMFT –

Cynthia Pickett

The word “no” is interesting!  

It is just two little letters that we have assigned such importance.  

If you have a hard time saying no without feeling bad then there are two things going on that represent poor boundaries.  

One is taking responsibility for others emotions and the other is being a people pleaser.

There is a fundamental flaw in our society that says “I have power over your emotions and I need to be careful what I say because I could hurt you”.  

This is an absolute untruth and presumes we are much more powerful than we actually are.  

No one has control over someone else (except in cases of imprisonment and slavery).  No one has control over someone else’s feelings.  

We are the experts of ourselves and have absolute ownership and control over our own emotions, thoughts and actions.

If someone says something to be that pushes a button, it is MY choice how to handle it.  

I can be mad, I can cry, or I can say “sure, no problem” and go about my day.  It is my choice which tool I pull out of my tool belt.  

Just know that when people have a reaction to something you say it is not because of you, it is because they are projecting their baggage, ALWAYS!

Second, it is not our job to fix; rescue and care give everyone else (this does not apply to children, the sick, elderly, etc.…).  

We do this because it leaves us feeling needed or good about ourselves.  But it does not work and is draining because it robs people from learning about their own strength, resilience and creativity.

We are so conditioned to not feel “bad” that it has stopped us from learning our lessons.  We are only responsible for ourselves and if we say “no” and feel bad it is because we have work to do on ourselves.

Cynthia Pickett, LCSW, LADC –

Amanda Patterson

We’ve all been in a position where we really wanted to say no, but we found ourselves saying yes. 

  • Yes to a project at work when the old project is still on your desk. 
  • Yes, to meet up with a friend for dinner when you’re exhausted from work. 
  • Yes to a child wanting a toy when your budget is tight this month. 

Logically, you know that you “should” say no but there is an emotional component that leads to the “Sure I can do that”.

Looking for approval from others

When you look outside of yourself for approval, you will find that you won’t be able to say no because you want that person to approve of you. What better way to get someone to approve of you than to say yes to their wishes. 

Where does your need for approval come from? 

That’s an important question to explore because without resolving your need to people please, you will not be able to do what is right for you.

Putting others first

Saying yes when we mean no also comes from a place where we deny our needs and think of the needs of others first. This is a very common pattern with parents. They deny themselves things and give 100% to those children. 

The downfall to that is when you give 100% the first time to someone else, you won’t have any to give to yourself. 

Then you aren’t recharging and becoming more available to those you care about. Why do you put yourself last? 

The answer will help you to deal with underlying feelings, such as shame, that lead you to deny yourself.

Not sticking to your values and priorities

This is a common theme when it comes to saying yes to things related to money. 

  • If you value saving money and living within your means, then there might be many times when you have to say no to things so you can stick to your priorities of saving money. 
  • If you value your personal time, then say no when you are asked to stay late at work. 

What are your values and when have there been times when you said yes to something that was in direct conflict with your values?

There are questions under each session which is a good start to journaling on this subject if you are struggling with being a “Yes Man” when you really want to be a “Thank you but no” person.

Amanda Patterson, LMHC –

Elizabeth Baum

Have you ever heard that “It’s not so much what you say, but how you say it.”

To take that one step further, it is not only how you say it, but the spirit with which you say it.

  • If you say “yes” with resentment, or when you don’t really mean it, it will likely sound mean.
  • If you say “no” with awareness and love, it will likely not sound mean.

You are the only one who knows what you are willing and able to give.

If someone asks you for more than you are willing or able to give, you are allowed to say “no”. You do not need an excuse. You do not need to list off your other obligations. You simply need to know it for yourself.

Typically, we are asked for things because our contributions are valued. We are valued.

When we say “no”, our value doesn’t diminish. In fact, we are being excellent gatekeepers of our own resources.

Ultimately, the key is to say what is true. 

Say what is most authentic for you, without trying to manage the other person’s reaction. 

You do not need to manage the receipt of your response. You are not the receiver. You manage the conscious delivery. That is your job.

  • Example 1. Imagine if your mail carrier made a habit of taking a box-cutter to your letters, dropping them in the dirt, or delivering to the wrong address. This is an example of unaware delivery.
  • Example 2. Then imagine if your mail carrier didn’t deliver mail because she thought the contents might upset you. You suspect that she is withholding something, and that makes you uncomfortable. Further, your mail carrier doesn’t really know you, and you would like to make that determination. This is an example of managing reactions.
  • Example 3. Finally, what if your mail carrier delivers things carefully, leaves them gently in your mailbox, and does not edit the contents of your mail? Some mail may upset you, but that is yours to determine and not the business of the mail carrier. This is conscious delivery.

It is true that if someone is not ready for a boundary, your “no” may upset them. That is NOT yours to bear.

They asked.

You answered.

Well done.

Elizabeth Baum, M.A., MFT –

Linda McKenney

Stephen Covey advised that when you are clear on your priorities and your mission, it is easier to say no.

He said,  “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, unapologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.”

Sound simple? 

What I have found is that most of us don’t know our priorities and our bigger yeses. 

So the first step is to take some time to figure out what is really important to you for your mind, body and spirit, and if you are in a relationship, what is important for the relationship. 

Based on that, you can develop a list of intentions.

Example Intentions . . .

  • We will spend more time together as a couple or family.
  • I will exercise every day to keep my body healthy.
  • I will schedule time to just be and replenish my spirit.

When you are asked to do one more thing, you can say no politely, with a statement something like this: 

“Thank you for thinking of me, but this Saturday is sacred family time, so I have to decline your invitation.”

Now you have guidelines to navigate your way through all of those requests. Keep a copy of your intentions on the fridge, by the phone or in your planner. The necessity to say no pops up all over the place, and you need to be armed and ready!

Linda McKenney, Personal Life Coach and Motivational Speaker –

Wendy Dingee

Why is it so hard to say “no” to someone, even when we know that it would be best to do so?

Often we are reluctant to say “no” out of a fear of hurting someone’s feelings, disappoint or let someone down, or fear that the person we are saying “no” to won’t like us anymore. 

These fears are not reality-based, but come from old programming.

One aspect of this old programming is survival-based.

As human beings with no pointy teeth or claws, we have little in the way of natural defenses from predators, so there is safety in numbers. Social bonding is part of our DNA for good reason! 

That need for connection is communicated through our limbic system, which deals with our emotions and stress responses. 

Unfortunately, the circuitry in the limbic part of the brain often does not communicate very well with the logic and higher reasoning part of the brain which is well aware that we (probably) are not currently in need of a pack to defend against saber-tooth tigers.

Those survival circuits that tell us on an emotional-body level that it is scary to risk endangering a bond can keep us from saying “no” even when we are very aware from a logical point of view that saying “no” would not really be a crisis. 

Sometimes we have trouble saying “no” even when we objectively care little about the person making the request!

In order to create an opportunity to say “no” when you want or need to, check in with your body.

Notice where you tighten, hold, or cut yourself off. Breathe! Check in with the fears.

Remind yourself that those fears are not about now, but come from an old place that is not based on the present or on your best interest.

As you identify the reality of the situation and recognize your limbic responses, you increase the communication between those different parts of the brain, and you can create new choices for yourself. 

When you are able to speak your truth from an authentic place, there is no need for defensiveness or anger, and you have the opportunity to strengthen your connection with yourself and with others.

Wendy Dingee, MS, LCPC, LCADC, BCC –

Brett McDonald

Self-doubt and inappropriate guilt can happen when you are unsure whether you have appropriately balanced the needs of others with the needs of yourself.

This equilibrium can be very difficult to find, because our sense of what is fair to ourselves and what is fair to others is not always accurate. 

There are a lot of pressures from relationships that can overwhelm your own needs, and lack of self-worth can make it difficult to feel entitled to stand up for what you feel, especially if it involves saying ‘no’ to someone.

If it is hard to see this balance clearly, try ‘turning the tables’.

Ask yourself, if this situation was applied to someone else, would it be unfair or mean for them to say ‘no’? 

So often, our ‘lens out’ is much more fair and accurate than our ‘lens in’, meaning we are able to see clearly that other people’s boundaries deserve enforcing, but when it comes to enforcing our own boundaries, we feel guilty for doing so.

If you can challenge this distortion by looking at yourself as you look at others, you will be more able to see the double-standard and challenge it.

Brett McDonald, M.S., LMHC –

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