A Guide to Saying No Without Guilt: 7 Steps for People-Pleasers

“You can be a good person with a kind heart and still say no.” ~Unknown

Is it really so hard to tell no? The uncomfortable buildup of emotion I felt while contemplating dropping the ‘n’ word used to have me rushing around town, home, and work for the people I loved in a heartbeat.

It was a day when I felt overwhelmed with all the responsibilities of being a mom, sister and daughter as well as friend and business owner. As soon as I picked up the phone to talk with my potential client, I felt wired. When I realized that it was bad, I said yes to the offer.

As I drove to school with my children, I felt slightly puzzled by the thirty minutes of conversation. The conversation went from me asking questions about the possibility of us being a match to my potential client to them locking me in for a meeting in person one week later.

Yet, something didn’t feel right. The thought of signing them up as clients was thrilling, especially since it would bring in a large paycheck. And it gave me a sense of purpose knowing that I could help them, especially since they’d had bad luck in the past. My track record in helping others is impressive. I’m willing to do anything to help anyone.

With my kids running wild around me, it took an entire hour to send the contract and invoice. It was a horrible feeling to finally hit Send. I questioned “How did this all happen?”

Reality hit when one of my kids fell to the floor with a flood of tears—I now needed to get back to my day-to-day tasks.

Because my life was hectic, I desperately wanted to go to yin yoga. My hubby was running late from work, the kids’ dinner was on the go, while my mate was on speaker phone.

She shared with me how a new client demanded that I drive for an hour to our sessions. I agreed. The feeling was overwhelming. I could feel my alarm bells going off and I knew I needed the additional income.

She asked me, “How would you feel if you didn’t say yes?”

I replied simply, “Bad, because I know I can help them.”

Resting my head on my pillow that night, my mind whirled with thoughts about “what if?”. Can I change my mind now? What if they’re amazing people and I’m just scared because I felt a little resistance? I don’t really want to have to drive. What made me agree? It’s my whole day out the window.

Just a day before we met, I discovered that both the contract and invoice had still not been signed or paid.

Then my kids’ school decided they were throwing a last-minute sports day, which I really didn’t want to miss. My heart was clear and loud. My daughter won. It was my decision to call it. They had not signed or paid, and they were only two hours from meeting.

I wrote them an email asking for permission to cancel my meeting. Also, suggesting that they look elsewhere for the job. That short, concise email took me an hour. It was also difficult to send as I felt guilty about letting them down. It was a shame that I didn’t say no from the start. Instead, I took one week to simmer.

Our phone rang within five minutes. I had forgotten that they had our number, which I never give out, but they’d insisted that we speak that way. I was completely caught off guard as a woman’s voice started questioning why I would do this at such late notice.

Considering her tone, I felt under attack.

I explained about the unpaid invoice and unsigned contract and then shared how I wanted to be there for my daughter’s unexpected sports day. For ten minutes, she grilled me. The only thing I could say was “I apologize,” which I had to repeat over and over until she abruptly hung up the phone.

As my stomach sank, I began to sob while my whole body stopped shaking. Realizing that my priorities had been set by my family, I was able to assert my boundaries. Yet, I was guilty for what I did. However, I felt guilty that I didn’t say no.

When we continually say yes to things we don’t really want, we are saying no to ourselves. By saying yes to things we don’t want, we are affirming that people do matter more than us.

This is why it’s so important to embrace saying no and practice it with grace instead of guilt. If I had done that from the beginning, I would have saved myself—and my client—a lot of stress.

Here’s how I now practice saying no without guilt, and how you can do it too.

Seven Ways to Say No without Guilt

1. Refrain from the temptation to exaggerate or justify yourself.

Fear of saying no is only one piece of the puzzle. A second part is the fear of saying no. We often believe we must have a valid reason to do so. We would be able to help if we didn’t.

Wrong. Overly explaining or justifying why we are saying no reinforces our need to please others—as if we need them to confirm that our reasoning is valid. That we’re stll good people even if we can’t do what they’re requesting. A simple “no, I can’t” is actually enough, so get straight to the point.

Try: Thanks, but I’ll have to pass. Or: I can’t today. Or, simply say “No,” thank you.

2. You will have more time to reply.

There are many situations that can be compared, and it’s worth taking a little extra time to get your response in order to avoid jumping into the fray with an unwelcome yes.

Now this doesn’t mean giving yourself permission to ghost someone with an “I’ll see” or “I’m not sure” and then leaving them hanging. What you’re trying to do here is stop yourself from reacting impulsively so you have time to make an informed decision. Take some time and think things through. You might find that the extra hours at work and missed yoga classes are not worth it.

Try: Can I let you know in {insert timeframe of choice}? Or: I’ll put some thought into it and get back to you.

3. They can be referred to.

We are often driven to please and want to be able to help everyone. Even though we might not be able to do the job perfectly, it is easy for us to take on a project and help others.

Over the years I’ve learned that I can only work with my skill set, and if I can’t do something, that doesn’t mean I’m letting someone else down. It is a simple and effective way to let go. It doesn’t mean I’m palming off a task but redirecting where to find the right person for the job. No longer do I need to know everything.

If you’re broken down on the highway, you call roadside assistance; if you need your bathroom sorted, you call a plumber. Everyone has a skill set unique to them, so let’s all honor that.

Try: Unfortunately, I can’t; however, you could try {insert person for them to contact}. You could also ask a friend who is able to help you.

4. Know your limitations.

It is about drawing a line according to your boundaries. This requires you to understand who and what you value in order to determine priorities regarding time, money, relationships, family and the environment. Honoring your values means saying “no” when you realize that we are not respecting them. We are at risk of losing one or more of our core values, which can lead to self-devaluation.

These limitations can be simple, like not going out because you’ve got a big meeting the next day and want to be well-rested. This is where socialization becomes less important than work.

Try: Unfortunately, I don’t have time for that today. Or: I’d like to help, but I can’t manage that at the moment.

It will be easier to find solutions that both sides can agree on than saying “yes” all the time. Here we already understand our limitations, so now it’s about supporting others in a way that feels good for us instead of just caving into what we’ve been asked.

Perhaps a friend asks for your assistance on Saturday. However, you already have a day with your family. You could offer to help your family on Sunday, instead of saying “yes” in a hurry and shifting your day. Think of this as offering what you can do instead of what you can’t.

Try: I can’t help you with that, but I can do *this* for you instead.

6. Be persistent.

If you’re anything like me, I bet the people around you think you’re superhuman. It’s almost like they expect you to help because you have never said no before.

Here is an opportunity to get a little uncomfortable and stand your ground by practicing persistence with that one person who won’t take no for an answer, or keeps going and going until you break. It will bring up a lot of mixed feelings, especially if the other person doesn’t listen and  throws all kinds of accusations and emotional tidings your way.

Repeating your responses over and over until they finally get it requires courage. It might seem tempting to offer excuses, but they will eventually learn. Hold on.

Them: “Can you help me get to work?”

You: “Unfortunately, I can’t.”

Them: “You can pick me up whatever time suits you?”

You: “I can’t today.”

Them: “What if I give you gas money?”

You: “Unfortunately, I still can’t.”

Try:Keep your feet on the ground. Eventually they’ll get the message.

7. Make sure you have a signed permission slip.

It’s okay to honor ourselves and respect our priorities. This permission slip is for you if you don’t want to be all things to everyone. It’s okay to say no. Your actions aren’t responsible for the actions of anyone but you. This is important to remember. It’s okay to turn down your best friend for a Friday night dinner when you’re exhausted. Or decline a work opportunity when there’s something you’d rather do. Or say no to anything when it’s not in your best interest.

Try: I’m honored you’ve asked, but I can’t. Oder: I’m sorry, but it is not now.

It was hard to accept no initially, but with time it got easier. I no longer feel like I have to be the one to save the day all the time—and this has saved my sanity.

Is it difficult to say “no”? How do you tackle it?

About Lizzie Moult

Lizzie Moult (www.lizziemoult.com) is a cognitive-behavioral therapist, writer and editor. She reveals the energy dance between our brains and bodies, as well as what it means to be fully confident in ourselves. Basically, she wakes up people’s feelings and gets them in touch with the boundaries they need to draw. She’s also the author of The People Pleasers Guide to Freedom and created the FREE People Pleaser Personality QUIZ to unlock your habits.

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