We need to say no in all areas of our lives, to all kinds of people, to all sorts of situations. You might need to say no when someone asks you to take on a task or invites you to a social event, and you’re already depleted (or you simply don’t want to).
But saying no is hard. Maybe even painful. We feel guilty. Often we don’t want to disappoint, hurt or anger someone; or we don’t want to leave them high and dry, said psychotherapist Lena Aburdene Derhally, MS, LPC (“even though it is not your problem”). Other times, there’s immense pressure to say yes, she said.
Saying no also is hard when you’re dealing with people who try to manipulate you into saying yes. Derhally shared this example: A person asks you to run an errand for them. You already have plans (which might include simply watching TV, because you’re short on downtime). You tell the person no. But they say: “Oh, come on. No one else will take me. You’re so selfish.”
Hearing this might make you feel like a terrible person. So you give in — because you want “to avoid feeling bad and shameful,” Derhally said. But you still feel bad. “[W]henever we go against our boundaries, it feels uncomfortable and upsetting.”
In fact, feeling resentful toward someone is often a red flag that we need to reevaluate our boundaries. “If we learn to say ‘no,’ put our foot down and not let people take advantage of us, then we feel less resentful — to others and ourselves.”
Saying no takes practice. And by adopting a few specific strategies, you can make saying no a whole lot easier. Derhally shared three tips below.
Know that you can say no nicely.
Like many people, you might assume that saying no makes you mean. “Saying no is a part of life and there are ways to say no without being rude or disrespectful,” said Derhally, who is certified in Imago Relationship Therapy.
She calls this “empathetic assertiveness.” That is, you assert yourself while considering the other person’s feelings. She shared these examples:
- “I would love to come to your party. It sounds like so much fun, but unfortunately I won’t be able to.”
- “Right now I have way too much on my plate to take another assignment. While I’d love to help out, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do a good job because I wouldn’t be able to focus all my attention on it.”
- “You seem like a really nice person but I’m not looking to date anyone right now.”
- “I understand you had a stressful day and that makes sense, but I felt hurt when you snapped at me last night.”
Often when we’re honest and transparent with people, they’ll be understanding, Derhally said. For instance, if you’re too tired to attend an event, you might say: “I’ve been feeling really burned out and depleted lately and really need to rest this weekend.”
If you’re going through a difficult time and feel comfortable sharing that, the other person will likely understand, she said. What if the person doesn’t understand? What if they’re hostile toward you and give you a hard time anyway?
“[Y]ou should really think about whether or not you want them in your life,” Derhally said. “You want to surround yourself with people who respect your boundaries and people who you feel comfortable saying no to.”
Offer an alternative solution that you’re comfortable with.
Sometimes, you might “feel better about saying no if you offer an alternative plan that you feel good about,” Derhally said. For instance, you’re invited to your friend’s huge birthday party. But you feel uncomfortable in big crowds. You decline the invitation but suggest doing a one-on-one dinner instead, she said.
You also can offer another solution altogether. For instance, you pass on a potential assignment but offer to volunteer at the next company event, she said.
In another example, you’re asked to be a board member for an organization, which you’d like to be part of — but not as a board member. You tell them: “While I won’t be able to devote the time to being a board member, I’m happy to consult here and there if you ever need my assistance in my areas of expertise.”
A family member asks you to bake your famous cake and cookies for a party, but you’re just feeling too overwhelmed, Derhally said. You tell them: “I don’t think I’ll have time to do any baking this weekend, but I’d love to buy a cake from my favorite bakery and bring it over.”
Ultimately, remember that “it is your personal right to say no,” Derhally said. If you don’t want to share an explanation, you don’t have to, she said.
Again, this takes practice. But it’s worth it. Saying no is very empowering, Derhally said. And it “often makes people respect you more.”
But even if it doesn’t, you’ll know that you stood up for yourself — and get to watch TV, work on a passion project, have dinner with your spouse, see a movie or do anything else. Because saying no to one thing opens up a time slot for something you really enjoy.