How to Say No!

woman yelling no

Does this sound familiar?

Your networking group needs a new co-leader. Your coworkers have asked you to coordinate the employee birthdays for the upcoming year. Maybe your child’s soccer team needs a parent manager. You don’t really have the time or desire to complete the request. However, you think you could possibly squeeze it in if you move some things around or cancel some plans. Consequently, that’s what you do. You sacrifice your own precious time and energy to fulfill the desire of someone else.

Yet, who is that benefiting? 

That’s why, no matter what the request is, we all need to learn how to say NO to requests that don’t fit into our lives.

When I was a little girl, I was a “pleaser.” I strove to please those around me, whether it was my peers or adults. I learned that being agreeable and saying yes to their requests helped me to get along and be seen as a “nice” girl. I also wanted to avoid conflict at all costs. Because of this, I was unable to stick up for myself or take a stand on something I really cared about. I simply became obedient and did what I was told.

Fast forward to adulthood. I have had to work hard to unlearn those tendencies to please and to find my voice. I’m now much more confident in who I am and can decline a request if it doesn’t fit into my life. Yet, once in a while, I still hear that voice in my head telling me to just give in and say yes, so that I don’t have to disappoint anyone or create conflict. 

Many other mamas that I talk to also want to please and feel guilty about saying no. We strive to feel connection with others. We don’t want to appear lazy, aggressive or have someone angry or disappointed with us if we aren’t able to help with something. We’re told that we can “have it all” and sometimes interpret that as “do it all.” In addition, women, in general, tend to want to be liked and accepted, especially by other women. 

Eventually though, we end up feeling like an octopus pulled in opposite directions by the many legs of our life. Consequently, we have to learn how to say no, in order to find more time and energy and keep our sanity.

What’s in here?

Why do we need to learn to say no?

This should be an obvious answer, just as with my self-care post. However, once again, many of us are killing ourselves trying to do everything for everyone. The problem with that is you can’t focus on your own self-care if you’re doing every task that is asked of you. Moreover, you can’t foster your own dreams and goals if you spend all of your free time doing things for other people (including your children).

Yes, you are allowed to have dreams of your own that don’t involve your children. You’re allowed to want to improve your education, to start your own business, to learn a new skill (hang gliding, anyone?), to take care of your health. In fact, I give you permission to spend time on yourself once in a while (if you’re in people pleaser mode, as I was, and need to hear that).

Consider that even long-term care providers with foster children or loved ones who are disabled can request respite care. Respite care is available to give the regular caregiver a break, so that they can rest, recharge, go to the store, take a nap, etc. This substitute care can help relieve some of the stress associated with being a caregiver. Then, the caregiver will have more energy to give to their loved one.

Keep in mind, I’m not trying to compare the responsibilities of being a caregiver with the duties of everyday life. My point is just that everyone needs a little down time to rest and repair. It’s okay to have some time that isn’t scheduled or spent caring for another being. Therefore, why not give yourself the ultimate act of self-care and say no, instead of yes, to every request?

Another aspect of saying no is that it creates clear boundaries for you and others. You teach people how to treat you. If you always say yes to any request, you teach them that they can walk all over you. They might try to take advantage of that by always coming to you when others decline. Why not show them that you respect yourself enough to only say yes when you can fully commit?  

If you’re still not convinced, consider this list of potential consequences to saying yes:

  • You could become burnt out. If you’re never filling your self-care bucket, you will eventually crash, physically or mentally (or both). Believe me when I say it’s much harder to recover from a health crash than to prevent it. Chronic, unmanaged stress is NO joke, as discussed here.
  • You could become resentful over time. When you’re constantly agreeing to do something you don’t really want to do, you will eventually feel like it’s unfair, even though you’re the one who consented in the first place. That resentment can build until it hits a breaking point that causes you to start feeling bitter about any requests you receive. Then, you might miss out on doing something that you would actually enjoy. In addition, you could direct that resentment towards the person who made the request.
  • Your work could decline. If you’re being pulled in too many different directions, how can you possibly perform your best? In short, you can’t. You will lose focus, because you’ll be thinking about ALL of the things you need to do. If you have a presentation due for work in the same week that you’re organizing volunteers for the school book fair, one of those items is going to be less of a priority. That means that you won’t be able to give as much of your time and energy to both activities, as you would have if you just had one to deal with. 
  • Your relationships could suffer. If you’re always saying yes to friends or family members, you’re not creating those necessary boundaries that we all need. As an example, if you don’t want to go to a party with your friends, but go anyway, you likely won’t enjoy yourself and, once again, might feel some resentment towards your friends. Plus, they will likely pick up on the fact that you don’t want to be there. Negative thoughts create negative energy that can often be felt by others.
  • You could end up in financial debt. Maybe you have trouble saying no to all of the charities that solicit donations, because you feel guilty, and end up donating more that you can afford. Perhaps you always say yes to your children when they want something at the store, just to avoid their screams. Or you use your own personal money for a work party, instead of asking others to help. Or you can’t say no to a family member who asks for financial help. There’s nothing wrong with giving money, if you’re able to. The problem is that all of these financial requests can quickly add up faster than you might realize, putting you in an uncomfortable position with your bank account.
  • You won’t have time to spend with loved ones. If your calendar is so full that you feel like you need to schedule in time to eat and sleep, how can you possibly find quality time with your children or partner? We all need downtime with our people, whether it’s playing a game or snuggling on the couch together or taking a walk. That time is essential for creating the close bonds that get us through the tough times. Plus, they help to relieve stress and make us more resilient. 
  • It’s dishonest. Does this one shock you? If you want to say no to an ask, but agree to do it anyway, you’re basically lying about your desire to do that request. That’s not helpful to anyone, because you likely won’t be putting in your best effort and, as previously mentioned, that resentment can quickly creep in. Plus, you might be taking an opportunity away from someone else who actually wants to do it and has a better skill set for that task. For example, say you hate baking but agree to make four dozen cupcakes for the bake sale. That won’t be helpful to the organizers, because your cupcakes could end up like those on Netflix’s Nailed It, as compared to someone who actually loves to bake. Nobody wins then.

When to say no

Obviously, we all have different lives and responsibilities. I can’t tell you exactly what to say no to and what to agree to do. However, I do know that we all need to set some general limits about what can realistically be done.

Maybe you only pick one major obligation for work, school and social functions. Maybe that’s too much and you need to narrow it down to one major commitment monthly or quarterly or even annually. Do what works for you and your family. Just know your personal limits and, most importantly, stick to them. Time is one of our most precious resources. Respect your own time as much as you would respect someone else’s.

The next step is to determine what gifts you have. Everyone has areas they excel at. As an example, I know that I’m really good at organizing and logistics, but not great at fundraising. Therefore, I can lead a local nonprofit group and its volunteers, but am not going to work on raising money for it, simply because that’s not my gift. If it were up to me, we wouldn’t end up with any money in the bank. 

Here are some general guidelines to know when to say no to requests:

  • If your first instinct is to say no. Don’t underestimate your intuition. That little voice in the back of your mind was created to protect you and help you survive. Just allow yourself to listen to it and move on.
  • If completing the task interferes with your sleep. Do I need to reiterate the importance of sleep? If the request is not work related or something you’re obligated to do and will cause you to lose hours of sleep, it’s NOT worth it. Seriously, your health is so much more important. And yes, sleep is directly related to health. If you haven’t seen it yet, please read my sleep post. Then go to bed already! (Of course, after you finish this article LOL.)
  • If the task interferes with your family time or self-care. Quality time with your family or self is worth so much more than trying to please someone else, right? ‘Nuff said.
  • If you think you should say yes. Ahh, the dangers of should. Should is like a four-letter word and needs to raise an immediate red flag. Should implies obligation, not desire. Should involves focusing on other people’s expectations, not your own. Thinking we should do something can get in the way of our own personal truth. If you say you should do something, ask yourself why. Then you might realize you don’t have a good answer. For more info, check out this article.
  • If the request doesn’t fit with your priorities in life. Setting priorities might be the easiest way to determine if you say yes or no to a request. Once your priorities are in place, you simply make choices based on those. If the request doesn’t fit with your priorities, it’s a simple no. If you’re not sure what your priorities are, here is a simple worksheet to help you out.

How to say no

1) First of all, remember that you are NOT that special. Hear me out. This is not a negative at all. This just means that, usually, someone else can complete the same task. Which is great for you, right? Then, you don’t always need to feel obligated to do it yourself.

As an example, say that you are volunteering for an organization and have been “voluntold” to contact 40 people to ask for donations. You don’t mind doing some of the calls. However, you realistically don’t have the time to do that many calls. Plus, this isn’t a skilled task that only you can do. Anyone can help with this.

Consequently, you tell the organizer, “I would love to help, but am only able to commit to half of the calls.” By saying that, you’re establishing your boundaries without sounding rude and still helping out.

2) Think about WHY you want to say yes. Is it out of obligation, guilt, fear of rejection or disappointing someone, a desire to please someone else? If so, then you need to say no. If you genuinely want to provide help or feel this task can help you to grow, then by all means say yes. Just make sure that you won’t be overextending yourself.

3) Let go of the guilt. Guilt plagues all of us, but it is such a waste of valuable time and energy. If you don’t have the time or energy to do something, no one has the right to make you feel guilty about it. Maybe you need to rest more. Maybe you have an ailing parent who takes up your time. Maybe your job is too demanding right now. Maybe you simply don’t want to add anything else to your plate.

When I practiced full time as a veterinarian, I wasn’t able to help out with school parties or field trips. I was able to bring in needed supplies, but didn’t have the time to do more. And that was okay. I didn’t feel guilty because I was realistic about the time I had to give. Okay, maybe I felt a little guilty at first, but over time, realized it wasn’t necessary and that I was doing what I could do at the time.

4) It’s okay to say you will think about it. You don’t have to give an instant answer. Just say that you will respond within a certain timeframe and stick to it. I do this with my children all the time. Instead of an immediate yes or no, I tell them “Let me think about that.” Then, you have some time to consider if this is something you really want to do. Of course, you can always say no later. Remember that a “maybe” doesn’t automatically mean a future “yes.”

5) Remember that “NO” is a complete sentence. Learning how to say no doesn’t have to be difficult. Children are taught to “Just say no” to drugs and alcohol through D.A.R.E. programs without any regret. We adults can do the same.

You don’t have to give an explanation or excuse unless you want to. If you prefer to be a little less abrupt, you could say that you have other responsibilities at this time. Or thank the person for thinking of you, but you need to take care of other things right now. That way, no hard feelings are felt. If you feel so inclined, you could even tell the person to ask you again in the future.

This happened to me in the past. I was asked to be on my church council, but didn’t feel like I had the energy for that at the time. Therefore, I politely declined, but said I might be able to do it later. As a result, I was better prepared to participate the following year in my church council. Consequently, just because you say no to something now, doesn’t mean you won’t be able to say yes in the future.

If you need a cheat sheet, I have created a simple script that you can use to politely decline a request. Does this mean that you have to use it? Of course not. However, if you often find yourself fumbling around for the “right” words, check it out.

Hopefully, this has helped you learn how to say no in a way that makes you comfortable, but also helps to improve your quality of life.

Please share your thoughts on this topic in the box below. What do you have the hardest time saying no to? What do you wish you had said no to, but didn’t? I love to read your comments and respond to all of them personally.

“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you’re not saying ‘no’ to yourself.”

Paul Coelho

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