The Art of Saying “No”

by Beth Granet, PsyD

Imagine this: you’ve returned home after work on a Friday evening after a long and exhausting week. Your friends, whom you have not seen in months, ask if you would like to join them for dinner. You have been looking forward to a quiet night at home all day and feel like you have no energy left to socialize, let alone manage or rearrange the logistics that would allow you to successfully meet with friends. You know that you are feeling too tired to say “yes,” but then doubts begin to enter your mind: “what if they get mad at me for declining?,” “what if I don’t like the food and then feel like I’ve wasted money?,” “what if my friends do not invite me out again because I said no this time?,” “what if they think I do not want to spend time with them at all anymore?”

If you can easily picture this scenario or a similar one and find yourself nodding along with all the “what ifs,” you are certainly not alone. At the height of the pandemic, many grew accustomed to canceling plans and dramatically decreasing the time spent in social activities. However, now that people are gathering, we have been forced to manage our social calendars and commitments again. Some of us are often taxed with arranging our own schedules on top of our children or other family members all while balancing this with work, volunteer, or school obligations. Although it can be fulfilling to have plans or take on additional responsibilities, it is not always possible to do it all. But why is it so difficult to decline? Here are some reasons we may avoid saying “no” to plans or other requests:

  • Circumventing conflict: many people are nervous at the thought of being involved in an argument and will go out of their way to avoid one
  • Fear of disappointing others: it is a natural tendency to want to make other people feel good, so we may be willing to agree to things to help others, sometimes even at our own expense
  • Anxiety of the unknown: sometimes we are nervous about what will be said or take place when we are not present and we may say “yes” to something in order to quell our anxiety about the “what ifs” or fears of what could happen if we are not part of things
  • Wanting to be liked or accepted: it is also a natural inclination to be included and part of a group so we may accept invitations to feel wanted by others
  • Difficulties with relationship boundaries: sometimes we struggle to set boundaries with others, especially if we are emotionally invested in them; other times, the people in our lives may sense that we say “yes” to things and will push us to do this whenever possible

Although it can be quite difficult to decline invitations or say “no” to taking on another task, role, or project, it is imperative for us to take care of ourselves and our own well-being. Unfortunately, there is no feasible way to say “yes” to everything while also effectively addressing our own health and needs. Thus, we must learn how to assertively, yet respectfully, decline. Here are some general guidelines on setting boundaries and saying “no”:

  • Assess your values: When faced with any request, you have to know what your values are. Perhaps it would be best to take care of yourself, or maybe given your relationship with someone, it feels more important to say “yes” to them. Once you have a clear picture of your values in each situation, stick to them and work hard not to go against them to just ensure that someone will like or include you. Put thought into how your choice or response can bolster or negate your values and use this as a guide for giving an answer.
  • Pause and consider the outcome: Take time to think about who is making the request and how it may impact them if you say “no.” It is also necessary to consider how you might feel declining. If you imagine you might feel guilty or anxious, yet still need to turn something down, seek guidance on how you might manage these emotions as they arise.
  • Think flexibly: Not every invitation or request requires a full commitment or reprioritization. Maybe you can attend the event for part of the time or share the proposed project with someone else. Remember not to put pressure on yourself to take on everything. There are ways to say “yes” to things and have chances to please others, while still maintaining your own needs.
  • Express and assert yourself: Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) teaches us skills to help maintain healthy boundaries while respecting ourselves and others. One of these skills encourages us to express how we feel about what we are being asked and to assert our wishes in the situation. It is important to communicate directly, while not being defensive, aggressive, or even too passive.
  • Be honest and fair, yet mindful of apologies: Another DBT skill teaches us to be genuine and truthful in our responses to others, while attempting to be fair to our own limitations. Many of us apologize for saying “no,” even when it is our right to make this choice. Unless you have done something to hurt another person, apologizing is not typically necessary. It can often be more effective and appreciated by others when you are honest, yet gentle.
  • Find opportunities to practice: Given how hard it can be to decline offers, sometimes we need to start small. Maybe attempt saying “no” to an impulse purchase while shopping or having to decline an invitation via email. These smaller steps can help us be more thoughtful when having to make decisions for bigger or more important requests.

It is not always easy to say “no” in a society where we are told we should be able to handle all of life’s challenges and responsibilities. However, by practicing the suggestions above and remembering the importance of prioritizing our boundaries and mental health, being judicious about requests can become easier over time. If we work towards balancing our values with our wants versus our needs, we can all learn to master the art of saying “no.”