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How Do We Say No When We Feel So Guilty?

how do we say noI take good care of myself. My family, friends and clients know this about me. I would not be surprised if behind closed doors I’ve been described as selfish. I am actually all right with that; I own this attribute.

Taking care of myself did not come easily. I worked at it as a matter of necessity. I take care of myself for many reasons, not the least of which is that it helps me be a better person. Quite a paradox! To be a better person, I have learned to be a selfish person. Let me explain:

Giving is a wonderful thing. But when we give and give, people will naturally take and take. What happens eventually when we give and give and give? You guessed it! We get depleted. Then we have nothing left to give others and we have probably rendered ourself sick or depressed from all the resentment that over-giving brings.

To keep us filled and not depleted involves saying NO at times.

For me this meant overcoming three challenges:

  • Learning to say “No!”
  • Tolerating the guilt
  • Soothing my shame

Each of us struggles more or less with each challenge.

We all know that feeling when someone asks us to do something that we do not particularly want to do, nor feel up to doing. Maybe your friend asked you to do a favor. Maybe your boss asked you to stay a little late. Maybe your partner wants to see a movie you have no desire to see. Maybe your neighbor asked you to take care of their cat while they go out of town. Maybe your mother needs to complain for an hour. We are all asked to do things we don’t want to do. Maybe someone asks you to do something unethical or that goes against your values. There are many times when we should say no.

Learning to say NO: It’s all in the presentation.

We underestimate the power of language and tone of voice. When I say “No,” particularly to someone who I care about, I make it a point to share that I understand the need. “I hear you hate going to parties by yourself. I totally get that. And, I am just so tired that I really need to rest tonight. I am so sorry I cannot support you.”

Here’s another example. “I hear that you need someone to walk your dog while you’re away. I am so sorry that I can’t help you out this time. I hope you find someone.” Or lastly, “I hear you want me to call you more often. I totally understand why you would want that. I wish I could call you more often too. I just hate the telephone and can’t call more than I already do.”

In each one of these examples, I try to convey my understanding. I don’t get angry with the person or blame them for asking. I use I statements, which means I own that I cannot do what they are asking. You’ll notice I do not even apologize. Because to me that sounds like I need them to be sympathetic to me. And I feel like that is asking too much after I just asked them to tolerate hearing no. I believe people are entitled to their feelings and that includes their anger from hearing no.

Tolerating My Guilt: The choice between guilt and resentment.

When I was training to become a psychoanalyst, one of my supervisors told me it was better for the patient to resent me than for me to resent my patient. That was good advice. Resentment is toxic to relationships. Most of the time, there is no objective or moral right or wrong when it comes to saying NO. The best compass is our internal one. We know and we feel when we have reached our limits. My limit point is the point at which saying YES would be too much of a hardship AND would make me resent the other person. With that in mind, whenever I am in conflict, I remind myself I’d rather be resented than be resentful.

I also know that I can make it up to someone either in another way or at a time when I have more ability to give. Additionally, I remind myself the feeling of guilt is temporary. In the midst of terrible guilt, I do my best to rationalize and distract myself when possible. It’s not easy, let me tell you.

Soothing My Shame: What makes a good person?

No one is perfect, although many people I work with strive to be just that. When someone tells me they strive to be perfect, I ask, “Perfect for who?” If everyone is different, who’s the person in your mind you are trying to be perfect for and why? It is likely a parent or a harsh part of your self. Perfectionist standards are unrealistic and were at some point a defense against vulnerability.

Let me share a story about a woman who prided herself on being perfectly giving. She fancied herself a Mother Teresa type. It was part of her identity. One day she met a man and they fell in love. He needed a great deal of emotional support as he suffered with lots of fears and depression. The woman told the man she was happy to take care of him. In fact, she told him “That’s what I do. I am all giving.” He was overjoyed and joked that he was all taking so things should work out well.

After about six months of perfect caretaking, the woman started to burn out. Determined not to ruin this relationship, like she had done before by becoming resentful, she confessed to him that she discovered she did in fact have a limit. Feeling more ashamed than she’d ever felt, she was sure he would leave her. He did not. He loved her even more for her vulnerability. And, he accessed the strength he had always had inside.

Six months later, after working through their new way of being together, they were still together. Now the relationship was balanced. He took care of her, she took care of him and they both took care of themselves at times.

Coming to terms with our humanity is not easy. The truth at first will hurt like heck but then, as the cliché goes, it will set you free.

Saying NO is hard. And sometimes we need support and encouragement to do it. But the process of learning where your boundaries begin is so worth it. You will feel better eventually and your relationships will be based on you and not what you do for someone. Knowing you are loved for who you are, flaws, limitations and all, brings great happiness.

I would not be surprised if behind closed doors I’ve been described as selfish. I also wouldn’t be surprised if behind closed doors I have been described as kind, caring, considerate and loving. When you try setting limits by saying No, remember to hold all parts of you not just the part that took care of yourself at one moment.

Bakhtiar Zein/Bigstock

How Do We Say No When We Feel So Guilty?


Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, takes the complex world of emotions and makes them easy to understand for all. She is author of the award-winning self-help book, “It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self” (Random House & Penguin UK, 2018). She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. Hilary’s blog on emotions and how to use them for wellbeing is read worldwide.For more FREE resources on emotions and emotional health, visit: Hilaryjacobshendel.com.


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APA Reference
Jacobs Hendel, H. (2018). How Do We Say No When We Feel So Guilty?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 17, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-do-we-say-no-when-we-feel-so-guilty/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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