6 Tips for Saying No to Unwanted Obligations

Giving yourself permission to set this boundary is important.

Posted Mar 18, 2019

igorstevanovic/Shutterstock
Source: igorstevanovic/Shutterstock

In my private practice and my advice column, I hear from a lot of people-pleasers. Often mildly socially anxious, these individuals—and the majority are women, though men can certainly be afflicted—are so afraid of disappointing others that they make themselves miserable. They're desperate for help with saying "no," and yet they also can't imagine actually bringing themselves to do it.

Now, of course, the world needs people to step up—and volunteering can benefit your well-being in important ways. People who do kind acts for others, and devote time to working on a cause greater than themselves, can get a mood boost, and may have a better chance of finding meaning in the long term.

But saying yes to too many things out of a sense of dread at saying no, to the point where it leads to stress, resentment, or burnout, is not good for anyone. The world needs helpers who are energized and doing things because they want to, not because they are hesitant to say "no." Plus, when you are not assertive about setting boundaries, you can bring about a vicious cycle, in which you will be repeatedly targeted by people looking to pawn things off on you, since they know you are unlikely to draw a line. And you will grow more and more stressed.

Are you someone who is repeatedly roped into things that you would rather say "no" to? Whether they are social obligations, service commitments, or one-too-many favors, here are some steps to make a change:

  1. Identify your patterns. Think of the big picture—and try to identify when you are most vulnerable to this behavior, and when you are not. What feelings are associated with saying "yes" to something that you'd rather not? Is it fear of being disliked? Is it the idea that you "should" be able to do it? Is it guilt that no one else will? Are there certain contexts (being asked in person, or by email, or by text, for instance) or certain people that make you feel more steamrolled? Do you say a "half yes" to get out of the conversation, which then gives the person the opening to take it as a full "yes" later on?
  2. Give yourself permission. Truly. So you may say that you want to say "no" more in theory, but this desire alone won't make changes. Do you truly believe that you have the right to say "no"? Are you willing to look at whether you value your own time in the same way you value others'? Is it a problem with delegation—you'd rather do things yourself, so you take on extra things that you should be delegating? Until you can truly give yourself permission to say "no"—which involves really buying into the fact that you deserve to—it will be extremely hard to change your behavior.
  3. Pause and count to five before you respond. We often blurt out things to fill awkward silences or keep a conversation going. We may be especially prone to relieving an interaction of uncomfortable body language—we want the person who just asked us for the favor to smile again, rather than keep looking at us with such expectation. But when we blurt out things without thinking, we deny ourselves the opportunity to truly weigh our words and understand what we are getting into. Stop responding out of pure reflex, and make yourself count to five before you respond. That will not only gradually desensitize you to the awkwardness of pauses, but it will give you further opportunity to deliberate and find the right words for whatever response you choose.
  4. Be firm and friendly. So many of us are afraid of saying "no" because we feel that being kind and saying "no" are mutually exclusive. This is flawed thinking that perpetuates our inability to be kind to ourselves. Saying "no" does not have to be a confrontation. It can be friendly, pleasant, and respectful in the same ways that saying "yes" can. Be sure to deploy friendly facial expressions and body language, and you have nothing to feel sorry for.
  5. Do not elaborate. Often, a "no" is attempted but is gradually changed into a "yes" because we trap ourselves into a corner. When we give too many reasons for why we are saying no, the other person may detect an opening. "I'm sorry that I can't go to that—I have a doctor's appointment earlier in the day, and though it might be done by that time, I don't think that I could make it there...although I guess if it is done then I should be able to be there. Or maybe I could even reschedule the appointment." See what happened there? A much better option is giving yourself permission to simply say, "I'm sorry I won't be able to make it!"
  6. End with clarity. Sometimes related to overelaboration is leaving an ambiguous opening at the end of the interaction. You may have thought that you said "no," but in reality at the very end you implied something (perhaps out of nervousness or awkwardness) about getting back to the person or picking up the conversation where you left off. And now they may ask you again the next time you interact. Make sure you leave the conversation with clarity on both sides.

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