You have a loving family, a great friend group, and overall a pretty good life. You love being a good friend and feeling loved and appreciated by the people around you. Everyone knows you as the person to go to for good advice, a last minute ride to the train, or an ear to listen to their problems. You love being a good friend, and you can’t imagine saying no when someone needs you.
There’s just one problem: It’s starting to wear on you.
The last time your friend came to you to vent about her jerk boyfriend, you heaved a huge inward sigh and then immediately felt guilty for not wanting to help her. You had to scold yourself into being present before you could listen to her.
You gave your girlfriend a ride to the train when she was running late for work, but you were so irritable all morning that you couldn’t concentrate on your own work.
You thought about ignoring your mom’s fifth call this week to complain about your brother. You love her, but you’re getting really frustrated that she keeps trying to put you in the middle. And then you feel guilty for being impatient with her.
What kind of friend, girlfriend, or daughter reacts this way to a simple request?
The kind who is getting burned out because she has such a hard time with one teeny, tiny little word: No.
Just seeing that word makes you feel cringey inside. Why? What does saying no mean for you? Perhaps you’ve heard and believed some of the lies we often hear about no: that nice girls don’t say no, that saying no means you’re being difficult, that it’s selfish to say no, or that it’s better to just give someone what they want to keep the peace. Well guess what – that’s all a bunch of crap.
Saying No is Not Mean
Saying no is how we create space to be our best selves in our relationships. If we never say no, if we try to always meet others’ needs at the expense of our own, we create a perfect breeding ground for anger, resentment, guilt, and shame. And those qualities do not tend to invite closeness, trust, or intimacy.
When we don’t say no, we actively participate in relationships that are harmful to us. We do not show other people how to bring out our best, because we give out of obligation rather than out of love. And we don’t give ourselves the gift of no, which allows us time and space to rest and recharge.
Contrary to what you may have heard, saying no isn’t mean, uncaring, selfish, or cruel. Saying no is not rejecting another person. Saying no is acting on your right to choose where you engage and where you spend your time and energy.
Sometimes, people will take you saying no personally. That is unfortunate, and can be uncomfortable, but it is not your responsibility to manage their feelings. You are responsible for yourself; you are responsible for how you say no (respectfully, graciously, kindly, etc) but you aren’t responsible for how the other person processes it.
So, now that you know you can say no, how do you actually do it? Here are three tips for saying no.
Tip 1: Strategize your no
Create some structure around your free time so you have a sense beforehand of whether or not something is going to work for you. If you plan to go out twice in a week and someone asks you to an event on a third night, you can more easily say no because you’ve met your personal quota of social outings. If you are willing to drive your mom to two doctor’s appointments this week, you can say no to taking her to bridge club because you’ve already given the time you are willing and able to give. When you value your own time as much as someone else’s, saying no is a way of respecting yourself and the boundaries you set.
Tip 2: Get clear on your reasons for saying no (or yes)
If you are available, clarify if it’s a want to or a should do. Do you want to take your mom to bridge club? Or do you feel obligated because she’s your mother and she sounds so upset when you say you aren’t free to take her? Do you feel like you have to shuffle things around to accommodate someone else because that’s what good friends do, or do you want to give some time because you enjoy spending time with that person? You contribute more when you are doing something willingly rather than checking the box because you feel obligated.
Tip 3: Don’t overexplain yourself
Keep it short and sweet. Don’t come up with a big, elaborate story about why you can’t or don’t want to do something. If it feels right, you can thank them for thinking of you and offer what support you feel comfortable offering. For example: “Thanks for thinking of me for this project!. Unfortunately I can’t help right now. I know you’ll do a great job though, and I can’t wait to see your finished product! Let me know how it turns out.”
I know saying no can be hard. But I also know you can do it. Take a deep breath, and let me know how it goes!