Learning How to Say “No”

I have come to the belief that there are not many times in life when we can say the word “no.” Whether out of obligation, respect, hierarchy or moral values, saying “yes” is often the right thing to do. But there are instances when saying “no” is not only the best thing to do, but also necessary, especially for one’s health.

The struggle between complying with requests and taking care of oneself is all the more highlighted during the holiday season. At this time of year, social invitations, charitable donation solicitations, and everyday holiday requests come flooding at us like an avalanche with the hopeful (and sometimes expected) anticipation that we will say “yes” to it all.

But the reality is we can’t and we shouldn’t. There are few people in the world who have the time and finances to do it all. The majority of us must pick and choose wisely. But this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Obligation and feelings of guilt can be the biggest drivers to forcing us to do something we don’t feel comfortable doing.

Here are a few guidelines I have found helpful toward helping me say “no” without guilt:

  1. Forgive yourself. Do this first, right now in fact, before you turn down any request. If you can’t forgive yourself now, you will have a harder time saying “no” and end up saying “yes” to something you wish you hadn’t when the request arises. So don’t beat yourself up. You can’t be your best if you aren’t first taking care of yourself.
  2. Consider your own, unique reality and know your limits. We all have different realities when it comes to finances, time, energy levels and obligations. What is possible for your best friend may not be possible for you, and this is completely okay. Realize this. Remember this. Consider this when making a decision. If a request comes your way and your ability to fulfill it will result in even more stress and regret, politely decline and move on. Know your limits, and stand firm.
  3. Find creative alternatives. Sometimes, saying “no” might simply mean “not right now.” It doesn’t have to be finite. For example, a charity with a cause that is important to you may hit you up for a donation during the holiday season. This may force you to look at your other financial obligations and simply fail to see a way how you can make a meaningful contribution to what you believe is a deserving charity. In this case, saying “no” now does not mean saying “no” forever. First, forgive yourself, then politely decline, but make a note to send your donation another time when finances are not so tight. Then stick to that promise as best as you can. You will find immense satisfaction in being able to do this according to your own timeline.
  4. Remember your values. This is a difficult one, but in times when a decision about saying “yes” or “no” is not so clear cut, remembering your values can sometimes be a deciding factor in how you respond to a request or invitation. Ask yourself how responding “yes” or “no” to a specific request aligns with your personal values, then act accordingly.
  5. Don’t dwell on your decision. Once you make a decision, don’t dwell on it. Move on. You know you made the best decision for yourself at this particular time under these particular circumstances, and you know any other response would not have left you feeling comfortable or good about yourself. If you are dealing with decent people, there will be no ramifications for your decision. And if you find there are negative outcomes to your response, put them aside for a time when you have the energy to address these issues properly. In order to be an effective, contributing person to our jobs, families, friends, and society as a whole, we first need to take care of ourselves. Only then can we be the best that we can be.
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