How to Say No Without the Guilt, According to a Therapist and Etiquette Coach

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Not to overgeneralize, but for a lot of us, it's hard to say no. So difficult that sometimes the word "no" doesn't seem to be a part of our vocabulary. This can be especially true for women—again, not speaking for all women on this planet, but maybe a big chunk of the female population?

If you have a hard time saying no, you know how it goes: You say yes, yes, yes to everything and then you find yourself overwhelmed, overrun, overtired, etc. By saying yes to too much, you can stretch yourself thin, whether it's in your professional or personal life. This can lead to more stress and even burnout.

But why can't we say no? Elizabeth Hinkle, LMFT, LCMFT, Talkspace therapist, adolescent peer consultant, and coach has an explanation: "Humans are naturally people pleasers; and particularly those of us who grew up as girls get many messages about doing for others, being nice, and helping. Part of being a person is connecting and helping others; however, some of us take it too far! It's easy to start tying our worth in with how much we're doing, how busy we are, and how much we're helping to our own detriment."

Another reason we might have trouble with saying no is that it can be hard to own up to the fact that we can't do something. Madeleine DiLeonardo, MEd, LPC, NCC, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Mind Body and Soul by DiLeonardo Wellness, thinks that our world of phones and social media makes it easier to flake out or "ghost" instead of being direct. "For many people, it can feel uncomfortable to firmly say no without feeling the need to justify why we can't do something," she says. "And of course, we do compare ourselves to others or feel like we need to do it all, which exacerbates this feeling."

But if you say yes all the time, you'll probably get to a point where you can't physically do it all. You could run yourself ragged and put your health at risk. Or you could mess up the tasks at hand or overlook something important (like a big presentation or project at work) if you can't focus because you've got so many things happening at once. You might think you're letting people down by saying no, but by saying yes to everything, you could also disappoint others, too. It can be a domino effect.

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Now, of course, there may be times when you can't say no to things. You can't really tell your boss you can't be bothered with working on a report because you've got a lot of projects going on at once—that might require a larger discussion about your workload. Or it would be impossible to say no to something like taking your grandma to the doctor when no one else can. It's about saying no to something within reason—and there are a couple of ways to change your mindset around this.

"When you consider saying no to something, what comes up for you?" asks Hinkle. "How does being more productive tie into your self-worth? What's it like for you to say no? Weighing the pros and cons of taking on the next task before you accept can be a useful strategy and gives you that moment to pause before committing. At work, strategize with your supervisor about tasks you're doing and limits you can set."

DiLeonardo agrees that taking time to make a decision about what you want to do and what's best for you can really help prioritize. And she adds, "You are not required to do everything that is asked of you. A helpful way to shift your thinking is to identify that just because you do not have anything formally scheduled, does not mean that you are free."

All of the above might sound good and all, but if you're still finding it tough to say no, there are some other tips and strategies you can use and keep in mind:

1. Recognize Your Limits

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"[Know] what's feasible and that it's not possible to do everything—at least not all at once!" Hinkle says. "For example, if this is your season for raising small children, that's likely your priority. You'll be able to volunteer or contribute more in a different way at some point in the future. It may help to think of your 'no' as, 'not right now.'"

2. Prioritize

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DiLeonardo asks her clients to think of their weeks as a whole and try to identify what balance looks like for them. "Of course not every week or month is going to have the same balance, but we need to look at these larger chunks of time in order to determine our bandwidth and what we feel we can take on," she says. "This can vary from week to week, and that's okay." She also suggests thinking about the activity or task and contemplating if it energizes you, brings you joy, or will make you burnt out.

3. Know That Someone Might Be Disappointed

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Coming to terms with the fact that you're not going to please everyone is important. "It's okay to let someone down and have them experience disappointment; everyone will survive this and be okay!" Hinkle says. "One aspect to explore is how to tolerate someone being disappointed with you."

It helps to realize that a person is entitled to that negative response they may give you because you said no, even though it's hard to be on the receiving end of that. "The key is to not internalize this in a way that makes you feel like you did something wrong," DiLeonardo says. "If you can have confidence that you have made the right decision for you, it reduces the feelings of guilt regardless of the response you receive."

4. Show Compassion

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If you're sincere with your compassion, this can help ease the disappointment. "You can always add phrases to show compassion, such as 'I wish I could be more of help,' to give the impression that you feel compassion for their situation," suggests Myka Meier, founder and director of Beaumont Etiquette and the Plaza Hotel's Finishing Program, and author of the upcoming book, Modern Etiquette Made Easy. "When someone is in need, they can be frustrated when you say no, so to let them down easy, showing compassion and care in the way you reply is a good way to do this."

5. Be Definitive

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If you waver, it shows that you could be convinced otherwise. Be firm and direct. "Depending on the request, you should let the person know that you're unable to help them, but offer an alternative depending on what they're asking for," Meier advises. "Just make sure when offering an alternative, you are not involved in it! For example, if you won't be able to babysit your nephew again, you could say 'I already have plans for the weekend, but I know there is this great new babysitting agency app that all my friends are using.'" She also warns against making excuses that aren't true because you could be found out, and that's a whole other awkward situation.

6. Realize You Don't Have to Provide an Explanation

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This goes along with not making up an excuse that isn't true. "As women, I think we are often looking out for others or don't want to hurt people's feelings," DiLeonardo says. "However, it sometimes becomes more stressful to make an excuse instead of clearly stating something more straightforward like, 'I'm not up for that right now,' or 'Thanks a lot for thinking of me, but I can't make it.' Additionally, when you offer a justification or excuse, it can leave an opening for people to push back (like offering a different date or time)."

7. Know Your Audience

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Knowing who you're saying no to is important, especially when it comes to the workplace, because your answer and approach may differ. Saying no to your boss might be different than saying no to your co-worker or direct report. It also depends on the situation, too.

Meier suggests that if you're saying no to your boss, you can say something like, "I always love to be of help where possible. I currently am working on XYZ, however, if this takes precedence, I can switch gears and focus on this task instead." Or you can suggest what resources would be helpful in completing the tasks.

For colleagues, Meier advises being direct so it's not up in the air whether you can do something or not. "You may feel that you can be more casual in your response to a co-worker versus a boss or manager, but in either situation, you would want to be respectful in your reply," she says.

8. Use These Phrases

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Hinkle suggests using these phrases that might be helpful in your execution:

"I'm not able to help with that right now."

"Unfortunately, this won't work for me at this time."

"I have too many commitments to be able to fully focus on this."

"I'd like to help you find someone else to do this."

"I'm able to do that next month."

You might be compelled to say "sorry"—in fact, for a lot of us, saying that word is a reflex or second nature. "You don't need to apologize if you're not truly sorry, but you should avoid being curt with your answers," Meier says.

9. Reply in the Same Manner the Request Came to You

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Keep this in mind so you can treat the situation with respect. "If it was texted, you can text them back; if it is asked in person and you know the answer, say it," Meier advises. "The exception is if you want to think it over before replying, or if the person asking on the phone always seems to convince you to do something you don't want to do. Then reply in a well-thought-out and definitive email or text, depending on the formality of the relationship." She also says there's no rule that you can't call someone if they emailed or texted you. I know, a phone call—to millennials that can be pretty scary—but it might make the delivery much easier.

Next up: The 7 Scary Health Effects of Burnout and What to Do About It