How to say NO without feeling bad, guilty, or selfish – including examples

Saying “no” without knowing how to say no can make us feel guilty, selfish, or like we’re letting someone down. People-pleasing sound familiar?!

The why behind people-pleasing and having so much trouble saying a simple “no” is more complex than actually just saying NO. Let’s start with how to get this done and then some other time we can go into why it’s so damn hard and makes us feel so damn guilty.

First, a few principles to remember when you’re gearing up for setting boundaries.

  1. This person’s happiness doesn’t need to come before your own. Feel like you’re disappointing them? Cool, but are you disappointing yourself even more by saying yes? Your feelings matter too!
  2. A “no” can be graceful and elegant, it doesn’t have to be rude or brusque.
  3. Telling someone something that they might not want to hear isn’t mean. It’s life, it’s boundaries, and it’s necessary.

Aaaah, okay – let’s get started on a few ways to actually decline something you don’t want to be involved in, aren’t comfortable with, don’t like, and so on.

1. Say, “no thanks.” Alternatively, you can say “that doesn’t work for me.”

In grad school, one of my professors assigned these two phrases as homework. We were literally supposed to decline something and set a boundary by using one of these two phrases. Once I had permission to do this… wow, I felt empowered. At first I thought I was silly for not knowing previously that this was even within my right, but a lot of people learn this later in life.

“No thanks” and “that doesn’t work for me” are to the point, but they’re not rude or mean. They are also very hard to argue with because they are crystal clear.

2. Acknowledge a replacement or a positive, and then decline.

This sounds something like, “I’d love to spend some time with you and get to know your kids. I can’t go to the birthday party this weekend, but when would you be free to go to the park together?”

Your important action here is to highlight that you do care and you are interested. Of course, only say those things if they are true. Then, be specific about choosing another time and activity in order to reiterate that you do care and you are interested.

3. Offer an alternative solution.

Say that a friend has asked you to drive them around while their car is in the shop. (That’s a big ask.) Maybe you don’t want to do it. Or, you just don’t have the capacity at the moment.

You could offer an alternative that isn’t an explicit no, but that offers something you can accommodate or are happy to do. “Hey, you can borrow my bike/car/scooter/rollerblades/form of transportation while your car is in the shop – let me know when you’d like to come get it.” This creates clear expectations as well as provides action for next steps – all the while not having to say “no way.”

4. Delay, delay, delay.

We often agree to activities, invitations, or requests because we feel put on the spot. By saying something like, “let me check with my partner,” or, “let me check what’s already on the calendar for that weekend,” you can create the space for yourself to say no and offer an alternative at a later time, without the pressure.

5. Make it a trade-off.

I have friends who like to go out every weekend, who like travel frequently, and so on. Sometimes I can keep up with this and you know what – sometimes I really can’t. When I have to say no to plans, it feels tough because the “no” is never personal and I don’t want it to feel that way.

Instead, I typically say something like, “I’m looking forward to traveling with you. I need a weekend for my family as well, so if I go to the beach, then I’ll have to give up another weekend trip. Which do you think I should choose?”

I didn’t say the word “no” but I made it clear that there are limits on what I can do.

Have other suggestions for how to say no? Need help practicing these boundaries? We want to hear about it!

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