Having Trouble Saying No? Here's How to Start

Saying no to others is saying yes to yourself.

Posted Oct 03, 2020

 Nick Fewings/Pixabay
Source: Nick Fewings/Pixabay

You know Traci. She's one of those people who are always quick to volunteer for that committee at work or church, the best friend in the world who will step up in times of need, whether it means a ride to the doctor’s, a shoulder to cry on, or lending you a few bucks when your cash flow is low.

The downside that most don’t see is that she often feels tired or overwhelmed by so much to do. That she sometimes simply gets burned out or depressed, or on rare occasions, gets resentful—that others don’t treat her the way she treats them, that they never step up and ask about her, that they don’t seem to appreciate her or pull their weight in the relationship. It’s giving, giving, giving, with no real giving back.

This is not about the committee, the ride, the shoulder, the money, but about setting boundaries, drawing lines in our relationships between ourselves and others. It's about being able to decide how much I can do and, more importantly, how much I want to do. Those who struggle with this have permeable boundaries where they all too easily can absorb the emotions and problems of others, like a sponge, until they eventually get saturated and can’t hold anymore.

What’s driving this behavior? Here are some of the common causes:


Traci does what she does because she believes in what she does. She helps, she cares for others, she steps up because her values say this is how you live your life, this is what a good life is all about. 

These are the Mother Teresas of the world, those whose actions are truly rooted in their values. If you're being motivated in this way, you’ll know, because you have none of the side effects, none of the burnout or resentment or feeling that your relationships are out of balance. You don’t castigate yourself if sometimes you can’t do what you normally do; while there is a solid core of beliefs, you are also flexible. Most importantly, you are truly happy about how you are running your life, proud of the life you have created… and probably not reading this post.


Guilt is generally associated with breaking the rules. Where values have that built-in flexibility, rules are rigid, and breaking them creates guilt. The rules often come from others—your parents, significant people in your past, like teachers or ministers, where their voice, not yours, is inside your head, a voice that is commanding and critical and stirs that guilt when you break their rule. By always saying yes, you avoid the guilt and self-criticism but at a cost.

Fear of upsetting others

Traci steps up and lends the money (even if she really can’t afford it), volunteers for the committee (even though she doesn’t have the time), because she doesn’t want to get others upset. Upset here could be anger, hurt, disappointment, cutoffs, any array of strong reactions that others might have. 

This is about being a “nice” person, about learning in childhood that it’s important to make others happy, i.e., parents, to stay out of trouble, to survive. Even though you are no longer a child, you still can't tolerate others' strong emotions or negative reactions; you are still coping with the world in the same fear-driven way. You're always walking on eggshells and avoiding any confrontation, because the world is a scary place.


By doing more than everyone else, Traci gets a payoff—she gets kudos from others who see her as that hard worker, that best friend; she may even get that promotion at work, all just enough appreciation to keep her going.

Or she may get little of this, but it's OK. Traci instead comes to see herself as a martyr—that sacrificing individual who never gets what she needs, goes unnoticed, but she takes comfort in knowing that she really is a better person than everyone else.

How to break the pattern

If you want to break these patterns and stop struggling with what this sacrificing life is costing you, here are some ways to start:

1. Slow things down

It’s all too easy to go on autopilot: Need a volunteer for that committee? Your hand is up before the person finishes her sentence and before you’ve had time to think it over. Slow it down. Don't automatically raise your hand. If asked for a favor, adopt a “Thanks for asking. Let me think about it, and I'll get back to you” reply.

By stopping the autopilot, by slowing it down, you have the opportunity for your rational rather than emotional brain to kick into gear. Do you have the time? Do you really want to do it? What are you afraid of if you say no?

2. Know you can change your mind

So you think about the committee, say yes, but then two days later realize that you don’t have time after all. Call back, say you're sorry, but you've thought about it some more and realized that it’s not going to work out after all. It's OK to change your mind.

3. Expect the wave of guilt and anxiety

If you do this—say no, change your mind, don't raise your hand—prepare yourself for the emotional tsunami. Here comes the guilt, the worry about others being upset, that critical voice in your head. This is old wiring, an emotional phantom limb firing. It will subside. Pat yourself on the back for not giving in.

4. Avoid black-and-white thinking

Either I step up and volunteer for the committee, or I don't. Either I do what others want, or I am an insensitive, uncaring person. What's obviously missing in this way of thinking is any middle ground.

The middle ground here is you don't volunteer for the committee but maybe do find other ways to help that fit your time and availability. Or you don't volunteer, but you take the time to let the other person know that you realize she has an often difficult, frustrating, or unappreciated job that you appreciate—you remain sensitive to the emotions and needs of others even if you do say no. You find a middle ground not to assuage your guilt, but to show empathy and compassion, to live according to your values.

5. Take baby steps

As with other behavioral challenges, you want to start slow and start anywhere. The issue here is again not about committees or money, but setting boundaries and learning to tolerate others' strong emotions, about replacing those shoulds with your wants and needs and moving them to the front burner of your life. And you truly can start anywhere: Anytime you realize you don’t want to do something, act on that feeling, take the risk of going against your own grain. Learn to listen to your gut reactions, push against your own anxiety and out-moded childhood fears, speak up, and stand up for yourself even though you know others might not be happy.

This is about you taking care of you rather than being afraid, rather than magically believing that others will care about you only if you are over-responsible.

Ready to say no?