How Do I Say No?

Boundaries are a necessary part of a good and balanced life. (If you need convincing, read this or check out my YouTube video on the topic.) Saying no is one form of setting a boundary. Each of us has an inalienable right to say yes. Guess what? We also have the same right to say no.

Over the years, I’ve seen countless patients who struggle with saying no. Women, in particular, often have difficulty saying no because of cultural and societal role expectations. They say things to themselves like:

  • “I feel selfish if I say no.”
  • “ Well, I’d want someone to help me out if the tables were turned.”
  • “If I don’t do XYZ, who will?”
  • “If I say no, I feel like I’m being disrespectful or rude.”
  • “Women are supposed to be nurturers and caregivers, so I need to do XYZ.”
  • “If I say no, I feel guilty.”

I say, “Poppycock!” We really must change the way we view setting boundaries, including saying no sometimes. Why do we feel compelled to say yes so often when no is a perfectly good and reasonable answer? The answers are many:

  • Many people feel that saying no is selfish. There are times where this may be true, but more often saying no is self-preserving, not selfish.
  • Some people say yes out of guilt: “If I can help, I should.” Just because you can say yes doesn’t mean you should.
  • Other people say yes out of a sense of gratitude: “I’m so blessed in my life that I should give back as often as possible.”
  • Some say yes due to self-esteem issues related to how others may see them. They are worried that saying no makes them seem rude, disrespectful or unhelpful.
  • Others say yes out of fear. They’re afraid that saying no will result in abandonment: No one will be there for them when they need help down the road.
  • Some say yes because they believe in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you’d have done to you.”
  • Still others say yes out of a fear of karma. They believe that what goes around comes around and that they better “go around” doing as much good as possible to stay out of trouble.

You might be thinking: But what if I want to do it all? What if I want to save the world? Why do I need boundaries? Why do I need to say no sometimes? Here are 3 good reasons:

  1. To make space for yes in other areas. This involves taking a look at your priorities. What is most important to you? If you set boundaries and say no to things, you have more time to focus on your priorities.
  2. To take care of yourself. Always saying yes, what I call “Chronic Yes Syndrome or CYS,” leads to burnout and exhaustion. If you have CYS, there’s hope! You can convert it to “Care for Your Self” by saying no to make room for important self-care efforts.
  3. To not lose it. Over time, people who don’t say no to some things can become overwhelmed. They then become angry and grow resentful and bitter. When they reach their limit, they may lash out and go off on people because they have such low frustration tolerance. For more on this, check out my blog on codependency.

So, how do we discern when to say no? One helpful method is to do an inventory of your schedule/life and ensure that you have time each week for self-care. This could be getting a facial or massage, reading a book, taking a nap, having coffee by yourself, relaxing and watching a movie with your spouse, spending stress- and drama-free time with your friends and so on. If you don’t have time for self-care at least once a week—preferably more—you need to find opportunities to say no in your life. If you don’t take care of you, no one is going to do it for you. If you already have too much on your plate, work at delegating or at least not accepting new tasks when your current ones are complete and not until you have that weekly self-care up and running.

Another method of discerning when to say no is to ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend in this situation?” So often, we are more inclined to be kinder to others than we are to ourselves. I’ve coined the term “reverse narcissism” to describe this phenomenon in the context of saying no. Briefly, narcissists, a.k.a. egomaniacs, are people who think they are better than others, God’s gift to the universe, all that and a bag of chips, etc. In situations of reverse narcissism, people actually underestimate themselves and their rights and feel like they have to say yes, to be everything to everybody all the time. The last thing they are trying to be is narcissistic, but what they don’t realize is that they are putting themselves on a pedestal by thinking they can do all and be all. No one person is that special or important—and that’s a good thing! For more on this, check out my blog on dispensability.

A third method of discerning when a no is appropriate is to check whether saying yes is in line with your priorities in life. Start by making a list of your life priorities. What’s most important to you? For example, your list items might include faith, partnership, parenting, provision, self and friends. (Sidebar: If “self” isn’t on your list, there’s your first mistake!) Let your “yeses” honor your highest priorities first. And, as I stated earlier, make sure that you leave room for weekly self-care. When you run out of adequate space in your schedule to honor your priorities, start saying no.

And exactly how do we say no? Well, the ways are as many as the situations that require it, but here are some pointers:

  • As soon as possible: If you know your plate is full, don’t say “maybe” or that you need time to think about it; just say no right away. Otherwise, you’ll just get all angsty and anxious knowing that you have to come back to the issue in the future. Or, if you don’t return to the issue with the requestor, you will look like a flake.
  • Firmly, yet compassionately: Don’t be wishy-washy, hem and haw or say, “Well…I don’t know…”. Simply say one of the following or something similar:
    • “No, thank you.”
    • “Thank you for thinking of me, but I will pass.”
    • “I appreciate the opportunity, but my plate is full.”
    • “I would love to help (only say this if it’s true), but I have no room in my schedule.”
    • “Thank you for the offer, but I’m not available for that right now.”
  • Without guilt: Remember, you can’t do it all. It’s preposterous to think that you can be everything to everybody all the time. No one can do that. If guilt does creep in, come up with a mantra to combat it. You can say to yourself:
    • “I have a right to say no, just like everyone else.”
    • “I am only one person.”
    • “I can’t do it all.”
    • “I do plenty as it is; my plate is full.”
    • “ I’m not the only person on the planet who can do XYZ; someone else can do it this time.”
    • “I am taking care of myself, self-care is important and no one is going to do it for me.”
    • “I would have told a friend to say no in the same situation.”
    • Or my personal favorite, “Poppycock!”

Trust me, saying no gets easier as you go along. Just like learning to play a musical instrument, you get better with practice. Just remember, you have the right to say no just as much as you have the right to say yes and you can’t be everything to everybody all the time. Now, get out there and start saying no to people!

If you or someone you know is struggling with this or another psychological issue, help is available. Talk to your insurer about available options under your plan. For more information on teletherapy sessions with me, visit the FAQs section at

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