Science-Backed Ways to Say “No” Without Feeling Guilty

Standing up for yourself is hard. But if you’re polite and considerate, you can do it.

Science-Backed Ways to Say “No” Without Feeling Guilty
Photo by Vie Studio on Pexels

Standing up for yourself is hard. But if you’re polite and considerate, you can do it.

I struggle so hard to say “No”, I fear I might have borderline people-pleasing tendencies. Oregon-based therapist Erika Myers, defines people-pleasing as “editing or altering your words and behaviours for the sake of another person’s feelings or reactions.”

If you feel you can connect with this, chances are, you struggle with saying “No” too. While it’s never healthy to “edit yourself” to accommodate another person’s feelings, people-pleasing might not really be your core problem. Maybe your desire to make others happy is merely a symptom of a deeper issue. According to psychotherapist and psychology instructor, Amy Morin, “the eagerness to please stems from self-worth issues. People-pleasers hope that saying yes to everything asked of them will help them feel accepted and liked.”

This habit got so bad, that it started affecting other spheres of my life. That’s when I decided enough was enough, and I needed to take definitive action to make it easier for myself to say “No”. I did a lot of research and found some science-backed ways that really helped. In this article, I’m going to outline a step-by-step guide to all the strategies I learned. I’m also going to share my key takeaways and how you can apply these learnings to your life.

Yes, I still struggle to say “No”. But these steps made my struggle a lot easier. I hope they will help you too.

Why It’s Important to Say No

If you don’t cultivate the habit of saying “no” to things, experiences, and people, you’ll find resentment building up. Yes, refusing someone else might make you feel guilty, but since when did someone else’s happiness become more important than your own?

In his book The Power of No, James Altucher wrote: “When you say yes to something you don’t want to do, here is the result: you hate what you are doing, you resent the person who asked you, and you hurt yourself.”

Altucher makes it simple: when torn between deciding whether or not to do something, if you feel anything less than “Wow! That sounds amazing! Hell yeah!”, then say “No.”

When you learn to say no to things that don’t give you happiness, you are freeing up space in your life for those fantastic opportunities that do. Every proposal you receive, every meeting you’re invited to, every phone call from a prospective client — if your intuition is not saying “HELL YEAH!” you should probably say “no.”

Life’s too busy to start a project your heart really isn’t invested in. Saying yes to only the things that matter is the way to fill your life with the things you are genuinely excited about.

“If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no!”
— Derek Sivers, Entrepreneur and Author

Learning to Say “No”

The reasons for saying “yes” can be varied, but it all comes down to the same core issue: you never learned to say “no”. It’s been conditioned into your brain that standing your ground and asserting your boundaries is “selfish”. As a result, you never practised the highest form of self-care there is: drawing boundaries and respecting them.

Thankfully, there are some amazing research-backed ways you can adopt, no matter how hard you struggle to say “no”. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do so:

1. Be compassionate to yourself

When faced with tough choices, you might find yourself weighing the opinions and feelings of others more than you weigh your own. In such cases, remember to treat yourself with some compassion.

In the book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, author Kristin Neff argues that you should treat yourself like you would treat a friend. You’d never judge a friend for the choices they make, so why should you be so harsh on yourself? This way, you can learn to be more understanding, respectful, and kind to yourself.

2. Don’t be impulsive

A big reason why you say “yes” when you don’t want to might be that your knee-jerk reaction is to avoid embarrassment or you don’t want to disappoint the other person. Therefore, it’s best to pause for a while, take a deep breath, and think before making an impulsive decision.

Research has established that simply taking a few minutes to yourself to introspect before making a choice can help you make decisions that keep your mental health as the first priority. Concentrate on your breathing as this will shift your focus to something you can control, thus helping you feel more confident and get back in touch with your needs.

You may also choose to delay your response. A simple statement like, “Let me think on this. I’ll get back to you by evening,” can work wonders.

3. Shift the focus away from you

While in conversation, if you shift the focus to the other person, it can buy you some time and help you reach a decision you’re comfortable with. According to Psychology Today, here’s how you can do it:

  • If someone asks you a question that you are not comfortable answering, shoot them a few questions yourself — related or otherwise: “Why do you ask?” or “Where did you buy those shoes?” or “Have you had lunch?
  • Keep probing if you need more time. Pepper them with questions while you take time to think.

4. Be skillful in your refusal

Say “no” in such a way that doesn’t make you sound like a villain. Here’s how Psychology Today suggests you can do it:

  • Thank the person for thinking of you or making the request/invitation, but politely decline saying you cannot make it this time.
  • Say no to the request, not the person. Let them know what you respect about them and recognise their generosity.
  • Be as transparent and honest as possible about your reasons for declining.
  • Even if they are pushy, be resolute in your refusal and stand your ground.
  • Be prepared to miss out.

Final Words

Yes, saying “no” is hard, but with time, practice, and self-compassion, you can master this elusive art of refusing without hurting the other person. At the end of the day, it’s important to understand that your reputation is not defined by a single refusal. While you should do your best to apologise, it’s also important to recognise that you’re not responsible for how the other person feels.

If you’re worried about making a bad impression, remember that no matter how hard you try, you cannot change what others think of you. Accept that, and let go of the innate need to be perfect.

Trust me, I’ve tried. It feels immensely liberating.

To read more from me, join my email family. That’s where we talk about the things that make us introspect and make changes.