It’s Always Alright To Say No

You Don’t Have to Do It All: How to Say No and Still Feel Great

If you’re stressed out right now, I hear you. Most of us are feeling overwhelmed these days. The odds are strong that you take on too much at work, either because you want to get ahead or help out your coworkers, or you just feel uncomfortable telling a supervisor that yet another project is more than you can—or should be expected to—handle. 

And then there’s your personal life. I mean, we love our friends and our family, but they ask a lot of our time—not to mention our emotional bandwidth. Relationships take work, and we never want to let anyone down. It’s hard to say no when someone asks for help, or even just wants a piece of your (precious, limited) time to catch up over coffee.

It’s hard to say no, but it’s actually a crucial skill for your mental health. Learning to say no—without feeling bad about it—will give you room to breathe and focus on yourself once in a while. You’ll be able to establish healthy boundaries and provide clarity about what people can expect from you. Best of all, you can say no to others while still maintaining strong relationships. Here’s how.

Take Your Time Answering

One reason it’s hard to say no is because we hate to disappoint people. Saying no directly to someone’s face is difficult. You might be afraid to hurt their feelings or even fear offending them, making you more inclined to consent to their request even when you really don’t want to.

Here’s how I’ve learned to deal with such situations: Starting today, make it your policy not to answer any request for your time in the moment. Instead, say, “I have to check my calendar, but I’ll get back to you.” Then give yourself at least 24 hours to think about your true answer. Calling back or shooting an email with your decision after a day or two will take the sting out of a “no” response, and taking your time will teach people that your time is valuable and that they can’t expect you to drop everything on the spot to help them.

Gauge Your Genuine Interest

Now that you’ve made it a habit to buy some time before answering, you want to use it wisely. So you really should check your calendar to see if you have time to take on a new project or activity. You should also use the time to consider whether saying yes to the request will bring you any joy, or if it’s only likely to be a headache.

Traditional pros and cons list can be helpful, but one magic question can bring a lot of clarity. Ask yourself: “Would I be willing to drop everything and do this if it were happening later today or tomorrow?” We often say yes to things we don’t really want to do because they are farther in the future, and we think there’s a possibility we may be more receptive to them later. But in reality, if you don’t want to do it today or tomorrow, you don’t really want to do it next week or next month, either.

Offer an Alternative

When you’ve decided to decline someone’s request for your time, you can avoid hurting their feelings—or worse, creating tension in your relationship—by suggesting something you can do instead. For example, if your sister asks you for last-minute babysitting for your nephews tonight, you could say something like, “I can’t watch the boys tonight, but I can take them out for ice cream on Saturday.” Your offer may or may not be accepted, but most people will appreciate your helpfulness and realize that you care about them and their needs.

Alternatives don’t have to be similar to the original request, either. If you’re asked to donate money to a cause, you could offer to volunteer your time instead—or vice versa. This is also a useful strategy at work because it helps you be honest about what you can handle and can help you suggest ways your boss can support you in getting the work done. For example, saying something like, “It will be hard for me to get that extra report done by Thursday, but if you could assign your secretary to help, I’m sure I could get it done by Friday morning.”

Stop Feeling Guilty

Saying no takes practice, and you may feel guilty for doing it at first. Fortunately, you can learn to change your thought patterns to stop guilt in its tracks. One trick is to simply say “Stop!” out loud every time you feel guilty about saying no. This is technique used by cognitive-behavioral therapists to interrupt negative thoughts. Once you say no, take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s always okay to say no. Eventually, you’ll become more mindful and catch yourself before guilt can take hold.

Remember, it’s always okay to say no to something you can’t or don’t want to do. The more you practice these tips, the more empowered and confident you will feel.

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