A Guide to Saying No Without Guilt: 7 Steps for People-Pleasers

“You can be a good person with a kind heart and still say no.” ~Unknown

Why is it so hard to say no? The uncomfortable buildup of emotion I felt while contemplating dropping the ‘n’ word used to have me rushing around town, home, and work for the people I loved in a heartbeat.

I remember one day I was on the cusp of complete overwhelm with the responsibility of being a mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend, and business owner. Hanging up the phone with a potential new client who was keen to work with me, I was wired. I had jumped the gun and said yes, when I knew all too well that this was a bad idea.

I jumped in my car to go pick up my kids from school, slightly perplexed at what had just unfolded in that thirty-minute conversation. It went from me asking questions to see if we were a good fit, to things being turned around when the potential client questioned my ability, to being locked in to meet in person a week later.

Yet, something didn’t feel right. Still, the thought of landing them as a client was exciting, as it brought in a sizeable paycheck. And it gave me a sense of purpose knowing that I could help them, especially since they’d had bad luck in the past. My past track record of helping people is pretty expansive; I will do just about anything for anyone if I can.

Sending over the invoice and contract with my two kids running around me wildly meant that a fifteen-minute task required an hour. Finally hitting send made my stomach drop. I questioned “How did this all happen?”

Reality hit when one of my kids fell to the floor with a flood of tears—I now needed to get back to my day-to-day tasks.

My life was busy, and I was desperate to get to my yin yoga class. My hubby was running late from work, the kids’ dinner was on the go, while my mate was on speaker phone.

I shared with her how this new client wanted me to drive an hour for our sessions at no extra charge, and that somehow, I had agreed. I felt totally taken advantage of and my alarm bells were going off, but I wanted the extra income.

She asked me, “How would you feel if you didn’t say yes?”

I replied simply, “Bad, because I know I can help them.”

Resting my head on my pillow that night, my mind whirled with thoughts about “what if?”. Is it too late to change my mind? What if they’re amazing people and I’m just scared because I felt a little resistance? I don’t really want to have to drive. Why did I agree to that? It’s my whole day out the window.

The day before our meeting, I noticed that the invoice and contract still had not been paid or signed.

Then my kids’ school decided they were throwing a last-minute sports day, which I really didn’t want to miss. My heart was loud and clear. My daughter won. I decided to call it. These people had not paid or signed, and it was twenty-four hours until their meeting.

I emailed them to cancel our meeting and suggested they find someone else for the job. It took me a good hour to write that short, to-the-point email, and it took me another hour to hit send because I felt so guilty for letting them down. I wished I had just said no at the beginning. Instead, I took a week to stew.

Within five minutes, our phone rang. I had forgotten that they had our number, which I never give out, but they’d insisted that we speak that way. I was completely caught off guard as a woman’s voice started questioning why I would do this at such late notice.

Considering her tone, I felt under attack.

I explained about the unpaid invoice and unsigned contract and then shared how I wanted to be there for my daughter’s unexpected sports day. She grilled me for ten minutes. The only thing I could say was “I apologize,” which I had to repeat over and over until she abruptly hung up the phone.

Rattled, I sobbed while my body slowly stopped shaking. I realized that I had just asserted my boundaries by prioritizing my family first. Still, I felt guilty about what I had just done. But I also felt guilty for not wanting to say no in the first place.

When we continually say yes to things we don’t really want, we are saying no to ourselves. We are confirming that other people matter more than we do.

This is why it’s so important to embrace saying no and practice it with grace instead of guilt. If I had done that from the beginning, I would have saved myself—and my client—a lot of stress.

Here’s how I now practice saying no without guilt, and how you can do it too.

7 Practices to Embrace Saying No Without the Guilt

1. Resist the urge to justify or overexplain yourself.

The fear of saying no is just one part of the puzzle. The second is that we often feel we need a legitimate reason to say no, like we have to prove that our no is completely justifiable. Otherwise, of course we would help, right?

Wrong. Overly explaining or justifying why we are saying no reinforces our need to please others—as if we need them to confirm that our reasoning is valid. That we’re still good people even if we can’t do what they’re requesting. A simple “no, I can’t” is actually enough, so get straight to the point.

Try: Thanks, but I’ll have to pass. Or: I can’t today. Or simply: No, thank you.

2. Give yourself more time to respond.

Not all situations are created equally, but if you can buy yourself some extra time to respond it might save you from jumping right in with a big ole yes to save the day.

Now this doesn’t mean giving yourself permission to ghost someone with an “I’ll see” or “I’m not sure” and then leaving them hanging. What you’re trying to do here is stop yourself from reacting impulsively so you have time to make an informed decision. Give yourself a little time to think it through and realize, for example, that staying at work for an extra couple of hours and missing your weekly yoga class is not worth the overtime in your pocket.

Try: Can I let you know in {insert timeframe of choice}? Or: I’ll put some thought into it and get back to you.

3. Refer them.

The need to please often leaves us wanting to do all the things for everyone. We might not have the exact right skill but will throw ourselves into a task to help someone out.

Over the years I’ve learned that I can only work with my skill set, and if I can’t do something, that doesn’t mean I’m letting someone else down. This simple way to say no is honestly my lifesaver. It doesn’t mean I’m palming off a task but redirecting where to find the right person for the job. I no longer need to be a jack of all trades

If you’re broken down on the highway, you call roadside assistance; if you need your bathroom sorted, you call a plumber. Everyone has a skill set unique to them, so let’s all honor that.

Try: Unfortunately, I can’t; however, you could try {insert person for them to contact}. Or: I know someone who would be perfect for this.

4. Know your limitations.

This is drawing a line in the sand according to our boundaries, and it requires us to learn more about who we are and what we value so we can understand our priorities around time, finances, relationships, home, family, and even our environment. Respecting our priorities means saying no when we realize we are not honoring our values. Each time we let one of our values drop, we are devaluing ourselves.

These limitations can be simple, like not going out because you’ve got a big meeting the next day and want to be well-rested. Here, the importance of work outweighs socialization.

Try: Unfortunately, I don’t have time for that today. Or: I’d like to help, but I can’t manage that at the moment.

Negotiating solutions that work for both parties will help curb the pattern of always saying yes first. Here we already understand our limitations, so now it’s about supporting others in a way that feels good for us instead of just caving into what we’ve been asked.

For example, perhaps a friend needs your help doing something on Saturday, but you have a full day planned out with your family. Instead of saying yes in a heartbeat and moving your family day, you could suggest that you can help on Sunday instead. Think of this as offering what you can do instead of what you can’t.

Try: I can’t help you with that, but I can do *this* for you instead.

6. Be persistent.

If you’re anything like me, I bet the people around you think you’re superhuman. It’s almost like they expect you to help because you have never said no before.

Here is an opportunity to get a little uncomfortable and stand your ground by practicing persistence with that one person who won’t take no for an answer, or keeps going and going until you break. It will bring up a lot of mixed feelings, especially if the other person doesn’t listen and  throws all kinds of accusations and emotional tidings your way.

Reinforcing your response over and over again until they get it takes courage, and it might be tempting to start offering excuses if they keep it up. But hold on in there.

Them: “Can you help me get to work?”

You: “Unfortunately, I can’t.”

Them: “You can pick me up whatever time suits you?”

You: “I can’t today.”

Them: “What if I give you gas money?”

You: “Unfortunately, I still can’t.”

Try: Holding your ground. Eventually they’ll get the message.

7. Write yourself a permission slip.

It’s okay to honor ourselves and respect our priorities. And if this is the permission slip you need today, then here it is: There is absolutely no need to do all things for everyone around you. It’s okay to say no. You are not responsible for anyone else but yourself. Remember that. It’s okay to turn down your best friend for a Friday night dinner when you’re exhausted. Or decline a work opportunity when there’s something you’d rather do. Or say no to anything when it’s not in your best interest.

Try: I’m honored you’ve asked, but I can’t. Or: Thank you so much for thinking of me, but not today.

Saying no was challenging at first, but it became easier with practice. I no longer feel like I have to be the one to save the day all the time—and this has saved my sanity.

Do you find it hard to say no? And how are you tackling it?

About Lizzie Moult

Lizzie Moult is a Writer, Storyteller & Educator at www.lizziemoult.com. She illuminates the energetic dance between our minds and bodies and what it takes to trust ourselves fully - Basically, she wakes up people’s feelings and gets them in touch with the boundaries they need to draw. She’s also the author of The People Pleasers Guide to Freedom and created the FREE People Pleaser Personality QUIZ to unlock your habits.

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