Guilt-Free Ways to Say No

When you’re overextended, learning to say no with kindness can be one of the best things you do for your health.

mother talking to daughter

Photo Credit: Martin Howard, via Flickr Creative Commons

“Crazy busy” has become the new hip designation for those with packed schedules and over-extended lives. Being “too busy to breathe” has almost become a status symbol. But as we continue to blur the lines of healthy physical and emotional boundaries, all systems begin to decline.

The busier we are, the greater our need becomes to learn when to accept or decline requests for our time and energy. Our health will deteriorate and our relationships will become strained if we do not develop the discernment to make good choices and learn how to say no in a healthy way. We often end up in difficult situations when our stress levels increase, and this is because we are often confused about when and how to say yes or no in our daily encounters.

Why it’s Difficult to Say No

One reason that we avoid saying no is because we fear the disappointment and possible rejection of the one making the request. When we do say no, we often feel selfish and then guilty. To avoid those feelings, we wind up say yes on countless occasions when what we really wanted to say was no.

Patti Breitman and Connie Hatch identify this tendency in their book, How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty. “As much as we hate rejection, we also hate rejecting. Faced with a potentially guilt-inducing situation, it’s easier to take the path of least resistance. While inside we may be screaming, “No!” on the outside we summon up an agreeable smile and utter that fateful, “Okay!”

When we factor in the inevitable fatigue and resentment that usually accompanies the tendency toward over-committing, sooner or later we will find ourselves feeling compressed, stressed, and even depressed.

Saying No Can Be Empowering

No is a small but powerful word. The ability to say no is a valuable and effective tool of communication. As Anne Lamott reminds us in her book, Traveling Mercies, No is a complete sentence.” When we decide to say no to something, we must be vigilant not to diminish it or bury it in apologies, long explanations, and justifications.

Learning when and how to say no will aid us immeasurably with finding more time and energy for the things we want, need and love to do. Put simply: when we feel better, we do better. When you learn to make decisions, not from succumbing to external pressures, but instead, from the internal wisdom of your heart, you will feel authentic and empowered. From this foundation of strength and confidence, you will have more to give and share with others in your life.

Rethink Your History with Saying No

How we feel about power and authority affects our ability to feel justified in saying no. In the past, we may have received many confusing messages about our right to set personal boundaries. Many of us were taught that saying yes indiscriminately to the requests of others equated with being an agreeable, helpful and generous person. As a result, saying no seemed to imply the opposite. Saying no was discouraged as aggressive, stingy and uncaring behavior.

It’s time to let go of these generalizations. Instead, we can embrace not only the right, but also the responsibility, to view any request as an opportunity to say yes, but also to say no, if and when we deem it appropriate for our well being. Our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual resources are precious commodities and we owe it to ourselves to monitor them closely.

Silence the “Shoulds” and “Musts”

Albert Ellis, a renowned 20th century psychologist, was famous for his witty, to-the-point expressions. In his book, How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, he emphatically instructs that in order to do as the title suggests, we can begin here: “ Stop shoulding on your yourself!” Just like the same phrase that the familiar expletive would imply, it indicates something unfavorable, undesirable and personally damaging.

Every time you say, “I should…” you place an unreasonable demand upon yourself in order to allay the feelings of anxiety and guilt that would come with saying no. Extending his play on words, Dr. Ellis explains that “shoulding” always follows “musterbation.” This occurs when our self-talk is peppered with a relentless, self-sacrificing litany of why we must be all things to all people.

It’s easy to internalize these unhealthy and exhausting beliefs because everywhere we look, we are bombarded with unremitting, pervasive messages of what we “should” be doing in order to be a better person. Self-doubt increases as we fall victim to the constant pressure to be accepted. This is often accompanied by a deep-seated fear that we will not be loved if we exercise our right to decline. But as the airline flight stewards teach us in their pre-flight instructions, “Always put your oxygen mask on first.” Only after you have safeguarded your own well being will you be able to turn to help another. We can’t give what we don’t have.

Two Tips for Saying No

1. Pause, Buy Time, Reflect

Unless it is an emergency, you never need to respond to another’s request on the spot. Buy yourself some time using phrasing such as, “I will need to check on a few things first and then I’ll get back to you.”

If the person making the request presses you for an answer, simply repeat the phrase exactly as you said it the first time. This will simply and directly telegraph your confidence and resolve. Be cautious about adding any wimpy phrases like, “It sounds good, but I’m just not sure.” This may lead them to believe that you are leaning more to saying yes than no. While saying this might lessen your discomfort in the short run, it is likely to cause more issues later when they are doubly disappointed because of dashed expectations.

Use this time to review your priorities and obligations, which must include your personal needs for self-care. Very importantly, get quiet by taking a ‘time-In’ to listen deeply to your feelings and intuition. Be clear and honest with yourself about what you truly want.

2. Respond With Clarity and Respect

When you say no, keep it simple and decisive. Extend your gratitude for their request and then let them know that you have decided to decline. You don’t have to justify your reasons for saying no. Remember that you are turning down a request, not the person.

You might say, “I want you to know that I appreciate your invitation, but I’m not able to do that.” When you are polite but not overly apologetic, it sends the message that you care but are clear about your decision. If you are pressed further, simply reply, “I’m just not able to, but thanks again.”

Initially, learning how to say ‘No’ more frequently may feel confrontational and very uncomfortable, especially if you are used to saying ‘Yes’ most of the time. Give yourself permission to practice saying no by speaking up more frequently in everyday encounters about your preferences. Examples could include voicing your choice of a different restaurant instead of the one suggested or declining an invitation to go out with friends on a work night after a long, tiring day.

Have patience with yourself as you are learning how to use this powerful tool of communication. Remember that learning to say no presses us to increase our self-confidence and encourages us to trust ourselves more deeply with all of our life’s decisions. This is rigorous, internal work that asks a lot of us. While this process will require courage, calm and conviction, learning to say no can be one of the biggest favors you can do for yourself. It also benefits everyone in your life because it helps to create more space, time and energy for what is really important.

With mercy and attentiveness, we can learn to listen to that gentle, honest and trusted voice inside that continuously reminds us of what truly matters. We must make room to be responsive to these life-preserving messages of the heart. Business entrepreneur, educator and author Stephen Covey said it this way: “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage -- pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically -- to say ‘No’ to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger ‘Yes’ burning inside.”

Learn more ways to live your healthiest life with tips from Dean Ornish.  

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

More On

Can shyness increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder?


Can shyness increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder?
Anxiety disorders can be caused by a variety of factors, and certain personality traits certainly can have a role. In this Ask the Experts video, psyc...
Try These Tips to Ward Off Winter Blues


Try These Tips to Ward Off Winter Blues
If colder weather has you feeling down, try these ideas to boost your mood.
What are obstacles in the diagnosis of schizophrenia?


What are obstacles in the diagnosis of schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia symptoms first emerge gradually and may not be clearly expressed. In this video HealthMaker Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, director, New York St...
Why is there a stigma associated with mental illness?


Why is there a stigma associated with mental illness?
People have long been afraid of how mental illness changes personalities. Harvey Fineberg, MD, discusses this stigma and how it can change.
How's your child's self-esteem?


How's your child's self-esteem?
Self-esteem is critically important to helping children thrive and connect with others. In this video, pediatrician Tanya Remer Altmann, M.D. offers e...