How To Say No To Things You’d, Like, Really Rather Not Do—Without Feeling Guilty

Photo: Getty Images/Dougal Waters
Even if you don't harbor people-pleaser tendencies, learning how to say no politely can sometimes feel like a Herculean task—especially if you skew toward being an empath. Texting allows some people to find the easy way out in the form of thinly veiled lies like, "Maybe I'll swing by." But when someone in your IRL social sphere asks you for a favor (read: a demand) and you really don't want to do it, you're suddenly tongue-tied. It doesn't matter if the person asking is a loathed boss, a trusted friend, or your own damn parent. It's one word, two letters, and somehow tougher to say than slaying the Nemean lion.

Experts In This Article

This difficulty in being able to say no does make sense, though; humans are wired to fear confrontation, and nobody loves disappointing someone. But when you say "no" to someone else, you're saying "yes" to yourself. It's a sign of self-respect, and a barrier against being overwhelmed to the point of burnout. That little word can set up a much-needed boundary, so it's good to learn how to sit with your N-O in comfort.

Luckily there are pros who can offer some guidance about how to say no and feel good about it, thus relieving you of your endless sense of guilt: "You can’t give a real wholehearted 'yes' if you don't feel like you can ever say 'no,'" says Helene Brenner, PhD, licensed psychologist and creator of the My Inner Voice app. And wow, do I feel seen. Building up relationships and being true to your own needs can be a super-tricky balance to strike—especially when those two forces are working in opposition.

"You can’t give a real wholehearted 'yes' if you don't feel like you can ever say 'no.'" —psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD

Sometimes a "no" is really necessary for the sake of personal wellness, too. If you, too, need a guidebook on the art of saying no, here are some handy tips to follow:

On the fence about saying "no?" Try these 3 self-check exercises to gauge how you really feel

1. Check in with yourself

Listen to your gut feelings about your ideal situation. "When you first heard the request, was your first inner reaction along the lines of 'Oh my God, I really don’t want to do this?'” Dr. Brenner asks. "If the thought of doing something gives you a terrible sinking feeling, rethink your decision."

2. Remove emotion from the situation and ask yourself: "What do I really know to be true here?"

Let's consider the scenario of being asked to do a favor at work. If your coworker is taking a long-weekend trip and asks if you can help her out with her to-do list, here's what we know: You are a responsible, capable employee who tries to be a team player. Here's what we also know: You don't think you should be punished with more work for being a responsible, capable employee who tries to be a team player.

Dr. Brenner advises that you ask yourself if you're really indispensable in this situation. "Are you the only person who can do this task?" she asks. "Will disaster strike if you say 'no'? More likely, the person who asked you may be temporarily at a loss as to what to do, but will then find some other way to meet whatever need you were fulfilling."

3. If you still feel torn, imagine a scenario in which you're delivering your decision

It's 9 p.m. on a Friday, and you're in group-text hell. You're a bridesmaid in your sister's wedding, and the other bridesmaids are pushing really hard to plan her bachelorette party in Nashville now that you're all vaccinated. You'd rather eat glass than attend, but you love your sister and know that the RSVP would mean the world to her. It's time to give yourself a minute.

"Sit down, close your eyes, and imagine that you are in a room with all the people who are counting on you to do this thing," Dr. Brenner says. "Then, in your mind’s eye, picture that you respectfully ask them to leave the room for a few minutes, until you call them back in. Picture them leaving, and close the door after them. When they are all gone, and you’re alone in your imaginary room, feel what you want to do. Then, again in your mind's eye, invite them back in the room, one by one, and imagine telling them your decision."

Why is this exercise important? Because it'll allow you to really reach a decision as to whether in your heart of hearts, you want to say no. And here's the kicker: You may decide that even if you want to say no, you may still say yes—but knowing what you truly desire is a powerful tool.

"By acknowledging to yourself that your true desire is to say no, you are staying in touch with your authentic self,"  Dr. Brenner says. "Also, you may find that, by thinking about it when they are all 'out of the room,' you decide on some sort of compromise between what 'they' want and what would be best for you."

3 Helpful tips on how to actually say no without feeling awful about it

1. Know that a tiny white lie is occasionally okay

In a perfect world, we would all pull a Phoebe Buffay when a friend asks you to help them move into a new apartment, and say: "Oh, I wish I could, but I don't want to." Maybe that brand of brutal honesty actually does work if you're really tight with the pal in question (if you say you're busy and you're not, they'll probably know). But when your third-tier friend shoots a text about a "moving party," and you legit don't even follow each other on Instagram, it's okay to fib about having other plans.

"White lies are sometimes totally okay, if there’s no chance they're going to be discovered and they’re truly going to protect someone’s feelings," Dr. Brenner says.

2. Be straightforward but kind

It's not always so easy to request favors from others, especially for folks who deal with a fear of rejection. So, while you don't want to beat around the bush to avoid delivering your answer, you do still want to deliver your decline gently. "For most people, being told no is not so terrible if they’re not made to feel bad or 'stupid' for asking," Dr. Brenner says. "Try to say no in the most caring way possible: 'I’m so sorry. I would love to help you with that. But I am so ridiculously busy right now, I just can’t.'”

3. If your “no” is going to absolutely upset someone, empathize with their feelings

You can't always predict how someone will react to a 'no' and may have nothing prepared for an emotional outburst, but if experience suggests your no will be problematic for the person you're denying, prepare to be empathetic to their feelings. Even though it's important to stay true to your choice to say no, you do want to make sure the other person feels heard and seen. "Accepting someone’s disappointment and being willing to listen to it in an openhearted way can turn an angry, potentially relationship-breaking moment into a relationship-bonding one," Dr. Brenner says.

Ultimately even if you slay on delivering a perfect no with zero repercussions, you could feel that residual whisper of guilt. And remember that through it all, saying "no" doesn't mean you're a bad person. It simply means you're prioritizing your own needs.

Originally published May 31st, 2019.

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