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How to Say No When You’re Used to Saying Yes

6 ways to be productive in life while making space for your mental health.

Source: iStock/kieferpix

Do you ever finish your day and realize that you didn't get half of your to-do list done? We often pile an ambitious number of tasks for ourselves to complete, but if you add up the time you have in a day and the time needed to complete your list, most of us are running on a time-deficit. Don't believe me? Count how many things you've pushed off tasks that were slotted for today or yesterday. I'd be impressed if there were none.

Do they sometimes keep you from falling asleep or staying asleep?

Do they usually make you feel pressured and guilty?

Do they get in the way of your dealing with unexpected emergencies and problems?

If the answers are “Yes,” it’s time to practice saying “No.”

Learning to say “no” more often is not easy. We want to be liked so we say “yes” when we are asked for a favor. We want our family and friends to know we care, so we say “yes” when they ask for help. We want our bosses to value us and our co-workers to trust us, so we say ‘yes’ to their requests. And we want to see ourselves as unselfish and altruistic, so we say “yes” even when we are exhausted and out of time.

Take Sally for example. She’s not real in a physical sense, but her attitude towards the word ‘yes’ exists in all of us. She is single, self-supporting, and trying to have a child. As of now, she is keeping her fertility treatments to herself to avoid questions from family and friends about IVF results and sperm donation. However, she is still taking on her regular workload so no one will wonder why she’s slowing down. So, she is adding doctor’s appointments, hormone injections, side effects, and insurance paperwork to her already busy schedule. But she is still saying “yes.” to extra things. Soon her to-do list is overwhelming, and she feels like her life is beyond control.

We all have our own versions of Sally’s story, but we need to learn how to:

  • Say no without feeling guilty
  • Say no without justifying ourself
  • Say no without defending ourself
  • Say no graciously, but not tentatively
  • Say no with an explanation, not an excuse

Here are six ways in which we can give ourselves permission to just say “NO!”:

1. Practice Stress Prevention - Be clear on the mental and physical health toll of too many ‘yes's. Stress will eventually use up your mood-stabilizing hormones and stimulate your fight or flight adrenaline. This will cause hyperventilation (shortness of breath), hypervigilance (high alert), and hyperactivity (constant movement). Saying “no” more often is stress prevention, and prevention is always easier than treatment.

2. Prioritize and Revise - Do this for your to-do lists every day. You can’t be everything to everyone – the price is too high. Besides, if you don’t pace yourself, you’ll have too many stress symptoms to say “yes” even when you really want to. So, if you want to honor your commitments and do them right, make fewer commitments.

3. Underwhelm Yourself - Your brain is busy handling your personal problems and journeys, plus the pandemic, masks, social distancing, handwashing, vaccines, and job problems. Don’t say ‘yes’ to everyone in your life right now, not even to yourself.

4. Take Choices - Growing up, we learned to make choices- our school course load, our friends, our career path, our parenting style. Now it’s time to take choices. The next time someone asks you to choose a movie to watch or a restaurant for delivery, do it. Saying “It’s up to you” to avoid criticism or responsibility is like saying “yes” all the time. You don’t have to give explanations or excuses for your choices. They asked, you answered. It’s great practice.

5. Give Up Guilt - When we are young, we learn to feel guilty if we do something bad. When we are older, however, we seem to feel guilty every time we don’t do something, we think is good:

I ‘should’ have said yes...

I ‘should’ have offered...

I ‘should’ have joined...

But this type of guilt increases our to-do list and our stress. Replace the ‘shoulds’ with self-observation: “It seems I didn’t want to say ‘yes.’'

6. Keep It Simple - Many of us avoid saying “no” because it can get so complicated. We either make up an excuse that ends up causing trouble later on when we're caught in a lie, or we push off the decision by saying we'll "check our schedule." All of this can be avoided if we just say "no" from the start. Say it without guilt, explanations or excuses, it's freeing. Try these:

“Thanks for the invitation but I can’t make it.”

“I’m already committed but thank you for thinking of me.”

“I can’t help you with that, but I hope it works out.”

Finally, think of saying ‘no’ more often as part of self-care. It means making time to take care of yourself the way you take care of everyone else. I’m not saying that you should reduce your list of loved ones – I’m saying that you should add yourself to the list! Your life will feel more under control and the yes will mean more.

More from Georgia Witkin Ph.D.
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