There’s a cultural misconception that saying no is rude or selfish. As children, many of us were taught to be as agreeable as possible—even if that meant sacrificing our own happiness. Feelings of guilt and anxiety about saying no are probably universal, but women seem particularly vulnerable. Many women are so uncomfortable with the idea of displeasing others that they question whether it is ever ok to say no.
Despite how uncomfortable it is, saying no is a necessary skill. Everyone has a limited amount of time and energy, so it’s impossible to say yes all the time. If we try to be everything to everyone, we eventually become overwhelmed, resentful, and burned out. We also start to neglect our priorities and values. Given how important it is to set boundaries, many of our clients have asked us how to start saying no more often.
10 different ways to say no that minimize guilt and anxiety
1. Know your limits
Ask yourself: “At what point do I start to feel really overwhelmed?” Your colleague may be able to manage a fully booked schedule, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it, too. Any time you start to feel stressed or maxed out, pay attention to what’s going on in your life. Once you identify your personal tipping point, you can create rules for yourself such as “no more than 2 hours’ worth of meetings per day”, “only one lunch out with colleagues per week”, or “no more features added to the new product until we’re caught up on the previous release”.
2. Don’t answer right away
There’s no reason you should have to respond to every request right away. If you’re not sure whether you want to do something, buy yourself the time to figure out whether you really want to do it or whether you just feel obligated. Then let the person know when you’ll follow up: “I need to check my calendar, but I’ll let you know by the end of the week.” Or you could say something like, “I need some time to consider options. In the meantime, could you email me some more information on what you want?” Putting space between the request and your answer will give you the opportunity to figure out a good way to decline the request. And sometimes the person moves on and asks someone else, letting you off the hook completely!
3. Start small
If you have a lot of anxiety about saying no when the stakes are high, look for smaller opportunities as a way to practice saying no. Maybe it feels impossible to say no when a long-time client asks for a special favor. But you might be able to find the courage to tell your mother, “Sorry, this isn’t a good time to talk,” when you’re sitting down for dinner. Doing this helps you grow tolerance for that uncomfortable feeling when you say no. As your tolerance and confidence grows, you’ll find it increasingly easy to say no when it really counts.
4. Focus on what you can do
Sometimes the most challenging part of saying no is letting go. If you’re feeling some FOMO (fear of missing out), try to focus less on what you’re missing. Instead, concentrate on what you will be able to do with the extra time. Every minute you spend fulfilling obligatory commitments is one minute less you have for yourself. I talk to my clients about, “What are you saying yes to?” to help them focus on this. It’s easier to set boundaries if you know that you’re “saying yes” to attending your child’s sports event or a much needed night out with friends. So, don’t dwell on what a great networking opportunity that speaking engagement could have been. Think about how nice it will be to finally have that date night that you’ve been putting off.
5. Say yes to something smaller
You don’t want to organize the bake sale at your child’s school, nor do you have time to make your famous chocolate cupcakes. However, you do know of a local baker that puts your skills to shame. Instead of saying that you can’t organize the bake sale this year, you could say, “I think the best way for me to help this year would be to contribute some baked goods. I love supporting local businesses, and I know of a great local bakery.” Saying what you can do instead of saying what you can’t is an excellent option for saying no without actually saying no.
6. Give a conditional yes
Are there any conditions under which you’d be willing to agree to the request? Perhaps you’d be willing to take on one more client, but only if someone else takes care of the onboarding paperwork. Maybe you could head up that new initiative, but only if you can push back other deadlines. If you don’t think anyone will agree to your conditions, all the better! If you’re wondering how to say no without feeling guilty, this can be a brilliantly effective way to do it.
7. Pass the buck
If it’s important that you not be perceived as “the bad guy,” you may need to find another way to say no that shifts responsibility. You could say that you promised your boss that you wouldn’t take on any new projects this quarter. Or tell them that you and your spouse have agreed to talk to each other before making new commitments. Or you can’t work late because your child’s teacher needs you to be available to help with homework. This strategy of passing the buck isn’t ideal for appearing strong and independent. But sometimes, anything’s better than sitting through yet another time-consuming social event that you have no desire in attending.
8. Protect the other person’s ego
It’s important to consider other people’s feelings, whether you’re talking to your neighbor, colleague, or mother-in-law. To assure them that there’s nothing personal about your refusal, consider leading with a compliment or other positive sentiment: “That’s certainly a worthwhile project, but I’m not available to help out.” Or “I love working with you, but I’m already part of another committee.” Another option? “I love that you’re doing this, but I just have too much going on right now.”
9. Apologize (or don’t!)
Many women apologize too much, usually in circumstances that don’t even call for them to apologize. You can imagine that apologizing while setting a boundary is controversial. If you apologize when you say no, you might regret it later. “Why did I apologize?” you might wonder. “I’m not even sorry!” If this situation sounds familiar, practice saying no simply and concisely. It takes practice, but saying no without apologizing can be empowering. On the other hand, you might not mind apologizing and find that it makes saying no easier for you. Just pay attention to how apologizing makes you feel, then do whatever makes it more likely that you’ll actually set the boundary and say no.
10. Be mindful when sharing personal details
Contrary to popular belief, there’s no rule against saying no without a reason. Just say, “I’m going to pass on that” or “I’m already booked,” then leave it at that. On the other hand, if you’re not worried about letting it all hang out, consider complete honesty: “I just moved, our puppy is destroying the new house, and my teenager has been acting out. I need to focus on personal stuff right now.” It might be a little embarrassing to share personal details, but you probably won’t be asked for help again anytime soon.
If you’ve found yourself continually struggling with how to say no without feeling guilty, working with a skilled psychologist who also does executive coaching can be beneficial. Together, we can brainstorm different ways to say no while also exploring the root causes of why you have anxiety about setting boundaries and saying no. Book a free, 20-minute consultation with Dr. Crystal I. Lee to see how she can help.