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Dr. Leda Kaveh,, Heather Moulder, J.D., ACC


Why is it hard to say, "no"? There’s a cultural misconception that saying, "no" is rude or selfish. Truthfully, it’s neither of those things and saying, “Yes” to avoid anxiety and uncomfortability can exhaust you mentally, physically, and emotionally, and gets you stuck in depleting relationships with people who fail to take enough responsibility.

Saying "no" is refusing to sacrifice something you love for someone else. It means that you're in control of your own time and emotions. That actually makes you more generous than someone who always does what others want them to do. Giving your body the break it needs is not selfish — it’s self-care.

But saying, "no" isn’t always easy. Sometimes, we feel guilty when we say "no" or we become worried that others will be mad or disappointed. The ‘no’ could be something minor or something major. It could be you saying to your girlfriend ‘no, I don’t want to go out to dinner tonight,’ or saying to your child ‘no, you can’t have an iPhone,’ or saying to your mother, ‘no, we’re not coming at Christmas this year,’ or saying to your spouse, ‘no, I don’t want to be around you when you drink.’ These ‘no’s’ may bring a range of reactions, from ‘sure, no problem’, to ‘I hate you,’ to ‘you’re crazy and selfish!’ But the truth is you are none of those things and you simply cannot control the reactions or emotions of people around you.

Ask yourself, “Does it make sense for me to be responsible for how others react to my ‘no’?”

Let’s explore this idea and cover some key points to help reduce your guilt and anxiety about saying that not-so-scary, dreaded, two-letter, word…"NO!"

1. Understand what makes you feel guilty and the anxiety around it

Are you blaming yourself for the way you feel? Are you the only one who feels guilty? Do other people find your decision to say no to be reasonable, helpful, or polite? You can tell once you’ve identified it.

If you find that other people are often angry with what you’re doing, or if they seem insincere and judgmental when they ask you about your plans, then there might be some dysfunction in your relationship with those people.

If that's the case, it might be time to take a break from those relationships. Clear away enough emotional clutter so you can see clearly what's happening in each of them.

2. Don’t make assumptions

Sometimes, people are afraid to say no because they are afraid of dealing with other people’s reactions. They don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. In their mind, rejecting a request could mean the end of a friendship, a marriage, or the start of a conflict. But many times, these fears are unjustifiable and purely assumptions.

“In an effort to reduce potential “hurt”, we have a tendency to over-imagine and play out “consequences” of saying no in our head.”

For example, one time, I wanted to terminate a tutoring assignment because I felt that the student and I weren’t a good fit. I spent days in my head thinking about what would happen if I told the parent about this. Would she be angry at me? Would she blame me for not trying hard enough? In the end, when I did tell her, she actually thanked me for my patience! She knew it wasn’t easy to handle her kids. Crisis averted!

The truth is, people can accept rejection better than you think. More often than not, things end better than you imagined in your head. And even if they don't, just kindly accept the rejection and move on. Keep in mind, you cannot control the reactions of others. So the lesson here is, don’t make assumptions about how people will react to your rejections. You never truly know until you actually say no.

3. Let go of comparison

It’s OK to do things differently than other people. It’s OK to say "no" to them, too. Everyone has different goals, opinions, and priorities in life — that’s a good thing!

When you compare yourself to others about how they feel and act, you lose touch with your own feelings and intentions. The same is true for when you overthink what you “should” be doing. You are the only person that can make decisions for yourself because only you know all the details about where you are mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

You start feeling guilty because you think they're better than you somehow, but letting go of comparisons helps you see everyone more objectively and clearly. Make decisions based on yourself, do not base them on the perceived needs of others.

4. Realize that honesty is the best policy

Saying yes to something when you don’t mean it is the worst. Imagine saying yes to an invitation that you have no intention of going to. Usually, two things will happen:

  • You force yourself to go. You don’t enjoy the event and you regret saying yes.

  • You come up with some lies and excuses so that you don’t have to turn up for the event.

Both don’t make you feel good — you either blame yourself or feel bad for lying. Realize that it really doesn’t serve the other person when you are not committed, not participating in the event fully, doing the work you agreed half-heartedly, or having resentment for the other person for inviting you. All of this can be avoided when you just say no from the get-go.

5. Understand the overall picture

Sometimes, people get angry or upset when you turn them down. They might react quickly and accuse you of being selfish or say other hurtful things. Hurtful words can be a reactionary response stemming from frustration. Try to keep the big picture in mind. What's the source of this frustration? Are they trying to manipulate you into changing your answer? Are their expectations realistic? It’s helpful to take a step back and look at the entire situation rather than just focusing on one particular instance or getting caught up on their words said in response.

6. Know your limits

Some people felt guilty saying no to requests. But what if you say yes and are unable to deliver what you promised? Would you feel more guilty?

“Accept the fact that you can’t do everything.”

Don’t promise what you cannot do and don’t make a habit of saying yes with the intention of not following through later. Not only will people lose faith in you, it hurts them too. By agreeing to something, you are effectively building up their expectations. People put their trust in you. They trust that you have checked your own schedule, you know your own limitations and you know that you can do it.

When you say yes but mean no, you’re really only buying yourself a very short reprieve from anxiety. Your mind begins to wander about how you will pull-off all of the commitments you’ve made. You start racking your brain for ways to get out of it. You get upset at yourself for overcommitting. With all of the anxiety surrounding saying yes…you might as well just say no from the start. Don’t feel guilty. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it. There’s nothing wrong with saying no.

7. Be forgiving of yourself.

Saying "no" can be challenging, and it’s OK if you don’t feel like you have a lot of control over how other people behave when they get upset with you for turning them down.

What matters is how you handle it. Do you get angry or anxious? Do you want to say "no" but avoid doing so because of guilt or shame? Most importantly, do you treat yourself kindly and with respect?

When you judge yourself harshly for things you've done, you actually prevent yourself from changing your behavior for the better.

8. Practice

To be better at saying no, you have to keep practicing. I used to avoid the insurance agents outside the subway stations. However, many years ago on Christmas Eve, I was caught off guard by one of them. She asked me to do a survey and I said yes. Somehow, the survey led to me signing up for an insurance plan that I had no intention of buying.

But after a few days, when I had time to reflect, I realized the insurance plan doesn’t serve me at all. I said yes so that I could carry on with my Christmas shopping. And I stopped because she said it’s Christmas Eve and she had to work. So I sympathized with her and agreed to help her with the survey. Luckily, I hadn’t paid any money yet, so I canceled my plan with her. However, both of us wasted our time going through all the procedures.

“Avoidance isn’t effective. You need to learn how to say no.”

From that day on, I knew that simply avoiding people wasn’t effective enough. I need to learn how to say no to them. So ever since, I walk past them confidently. When they try to stop me, I just smile back and say no while continuing to walk.

At first, it can be tough. But as you practice more, your confidence will grow. Remember that saying "no" is a skill, and like any other skill, it takes practice. It might not be perfect from the get-go but with time you’ll master the art of saying, “no.”

9. Let go, after you say, “No.”

When you say, “No” to someone they might be angry or hurt. They may choose to not invite you to the next event. They may decide to drink themselves into an alcohol stupor. They may decide to tell a friend how awful you are. But none of this is your responsibility and more importantly, none of it is true. The way someone else interprets your ‘no,’ and the choices they make following your ‘no,’ are not your responsibility. Instead, it is your job to let go of that responsibility.

Letting go is hard. It is painful to have to deal with someone you love being upset with you. It is painful when someone you love is in pain. It is painful to watch someone you love make destructive choices. And it is scary to let go of trying to control their reactions.

If you continue to feel responsible for how others react to your ‘no,’ you are agreeing to be a part of an unhealthy relationship that is based on distorted concepts of responsibility. Your only hope for a healthy relationship is to continue to work toward breaking your own patterns of unhealthy responsibility and underlying codependency.

Fortunately for those who want to transform unhealthy responsibility into healthy responsibility, there are internal signals that alert you when you are possibly falling prey to misconceptions about responsibility. Two of those signals are guilt and resentment. Guilt and resentment often reflect an anxiety around saying no that comes from feeling responsible for the other person’s reaction. When you feel guilt and resentment, you have an opportunity to reflect on whether you are fulfilling your responsibilities in saying ‘no.’ If so, you must try, try, try, to … let go.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be discouraged if you can’t change your patterns overnight. While the idea of saying no and letting go may be simple, carrying it out in real life is messy, sticky, and confusing. But with some motivation, some work, and support, it can be done, and the liberation and strength you gain along the way can help fuel your process forward.

Remember, as funny as it feels…“No” is a one-word sentence and you simply cannot control the reactions of those around you.

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