Saying no to someone can be difficult. You might not want to upset them, hurt their feelings or create conflict in your relationship.
But while saying yes when you don’t want to might help you to avoid any short-term awkward moments, it could take a long-term toll on your wellbeing. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to say no to friends or family when you need to.
It’s a natural reaction
Consultant Psychologist Dr Bec Jackson reassures us that it's natural to want to avoid unpleasant emotions in both ourselves and the other person.
That’s why, she says, “We try to avoid causing feelings of rejection, guilt, fear, disappointment, shame or judgement. Because essentially, we don’t want others to think that we’re not enough.”
At the same time, we want to be seen as helpful and supportive. So saying yes can become part of our social identity. We want to be ‘the caring one’ or ‘the agreeable one’.
The key is to create a balance. You want people to know that they can rely on you to help when you can, but also set your own boundaries around when you’ll say no.
How do I say no?
The first part of saying no comfortably is not feeling guilty about saying it in the first place. We all have our own lives with plenty going on. Just because someone needs help, that doesn’t mean you have to provide it if you don’t have the time or ability.
And knowing whether you genuinely have time means understanding your own needs and how to prioritise tasks. This ensures you know exactly what’s going on in your life and your capacity to take on anything extra.
Make sure you include keeping any self-care appointments as part of your needs. These are just as important as any other arrangements and should not be easily cancelled.
‘No’ isn’t just a two-letter word
For some people, a bold NO is very hard to say.
Don’t feel that you have to justify your ‘no’, but realise that knowing how to say it politely might help you to say it more often.
Try phrases like:
- “Thanks so much for asking, but I can’t fit that in at the moment.”
- “I love that you thought of me, but my diary’s completely booked up.”
- “That sounds great. Unfortunately, it’s just not possible at the moment.
Dr Bec adds that when she feels overwhelmed, she asks herself, “What do I want to be spending my time on?” This helps her to prioritise and makes saying no to some things easier.
Saying no doesn’t have to be absolute
Sometimes you don’t need to say no as much as say, “Not right now.”
If you don’t want to disappoint someone, try offering an alternative that suits you better and doesn’t mean giving a flat no. Perhaps try:
- “I really want to help, but I can’t this week. How does next week suit you?”, or
- “My work diary is full this month. I can put you down for early next month though?”
This allows you to still be ‘the helpful one’ while also maintaining your boundaries.
It's about saying yes to your needs
It might take some practice, but saying no should eventually become as easy as saying yes. It’s good to be able to help others - just not at the expense of your own mental wellbeing.
Find your happy medium, stick to it and other people will respect your boundaries.
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Dr Bec Jackson is a Consultant Psychologist with 20 years’ experience across clinical psychology, academia, therapy and education in clinical, forensic and organisational psychology.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board October 2021.