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How to Say No (And Not Feel Bad About It)

Will you call my mom and pretend I’m hanging out with you?
Can I borrow $75?
Is it ok if I date your ex-boyfriend
Will you drive me to the airport at 4:30 tomorrow morning?
Isn’t Nickleback awesome?
Can you take this with you when you go to Mexico and deliver it to my friend?

Research has shown that being assertive can lead to less anxiety and better mental health overall. A big part of being assertive is saying “no” when you aren’t able or interested in doing something, or disagree with someone’s perspective. Saying no is really difficult for people, myself included. It can be hard for people for different reasons. Some people find it hard because they were they caretaker of their family and are used to ignoring their own needs to care for others. Sometimes people feel like they aren’t good enough and they don’t want people to be disappointed in them or not like them. Gender can also play a role in this. Often women are raised to be passive so they have to learn this skill later in life. For men, they might have had a male in their life who was overly assertive or bordering on aggressive and they become the opposite of that, but in turn are too passive.

Thankfully saying no is something you can practice, learn and integrate into your life. I’ve compiled some tips to get you started. Remember changing your habits takes time, so be patient with yourself during this transition. Here are some things to try, practice or consider:

  • Consider what will you be losing if you say yes? Time? Money? Energy? You time? Is it worth it?
  • Start small - try saying “no” in situations that are only slightly stressful (“You want me to go to that boring action movie? No thanks!”). When you’ve done this a few times, move on to bigger issues (like telling a lazy group project partner that you won’t finish their part of the project).
  • Tell yourself you are in control of the situation. This might make you feel more confident and more able to say no.
  • Don’t be afraid to say it over and over again. Some people don’t respect boundaries so you might have to say no a few times and the more you say it the easier it will be.
  • Remember that saying no can be done in a respectful way: “I’m sorry.  I have to say no to that right now.”
  • If you are really struggling, try to reframe your thoughts. For example, if you are thinking “I am a bad friend for not letting my friend copy my homework” ,  flip it to “I worked hard on this project, I deserve to get graded properly and not in trouble for cheating”.
  • Think about what you would say to a friend in your situation. I’m sure you would be telling your friend to say “no” to the latest outrageous request
  • Don’t give a list of excuses about why you have to say no. This gives the other person wiggle room to discount your reasons, and before you know it you are back in the “yes” zone.
  • Give yourself time to think about it.  For many people saying yes is a reflex. Try to say “I need time to think about it”. It’s okay to say that!
  • Say no but follow up with an alternative or suggest someone else who might be able to help. For example “I can’t bake cookies for your party but I can send you are really easy recipe” or “I can’t take care of your dog but Taylor is a great dog sitter, you should talk to her”.
  • Remember saying no will give you time for what you actually want to do
  • Actually say NO, not “I can’t tonight” or “maybe”. Say “no” so there is no doubt about what you can and can’t do.
  • Don’t accept freebies or favours you don’t need.  It makes it harder to say no to someone you think you “owe” something to. 
  • If you are slightly interested in the ask then negotiate! What needs to change before you can be involved?

Since it’s hard to change your habits, start with one of these tips and try to integrate it in to your life. If you need some extra help with your habit change read the Quickstart Guide for Quitting A Bad Habit.