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Does saying no to someone make you feel guilty?

Do you say yes when you don’t mean it?

Or do you find yourself saying maybe all the time just to avoid rejecting others?

Both yes and maybe are bad answers if you meant no.

In the past, I wasn’t very good at saying no to people. I’m rather accommodating. If my friends were to make the effort to plan something, I felt bad rejecting their invitations.

But as I grew older, I realized as an introvert, I couldn’t keep up with the increasing social demands. Saying yes to all activities would make me perpetually drained. So I needed to pace myself.

However, “maybe” isn’t a good answer too. Maybe is non-committal. Imagine your friends are planning a trip to go somewhere and you say, “maybe”. “Maybe” as in you want to go, or “maybe” as you don’t want to go. Your friends wouldn’t know whether to include you in their planning.

So it’s important to be able to say no when you mean it.

How to Say No to People Without Feeling Guilty

1. Understand what makes you feel guilty

To break free from guilty feelings, you must first understand what is causing you to feel guilty. Guilt is usually a judgment you impose on yourself for doing something wrong. So to understand what’s holding you back, ask yourself:

“What’s wrong with saying no?”

Some people like people-pleasers feel guilty to say no because they don’t want to upset or disappoint the other party. They feel like they are the cause of other people’s unhappiness. The truth is we can’t help other people manage their emotions and it’s not our responsibility to do so. Know that people can’t be pleased no matter how much yes you said.

Saying no doesn’t mean that you are a bad person. Rejections are part of life. We all have to learn how to handle rejections. The reason why we feel uncomfortable to reject someone is that we are afraid of being rejected ourselves. So learn to accept rejections as part of your life’s teaching.

2. Don’t make assumptions

Sometimes, people are afraid to say no because they are afraid of dealing with other people’s reactions. They don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. In their mind, rejecting a request could mean the end of a friendship, a marriage, or the start of a conflict. But many times, these fears are unjustifiable and purely assumptions.

We over-imagined the consequences of saying no in our head.

For example, one time, I wanted to terminate a tuition assignment because I felt that the student and I weren’t a good fit. I spent days in my head thinking about what would happen if I told the parent about this. Would she be angry at me? Would she blame me for not trying hard enough? In the end, when I did tell her, she thanked me for my patience instead. She knew it wasn’t easy to handle her kids.

Another example: I had to reject a tuition assignment from my friend because I didn’t want to teach animation. Again, I over-imagined the consequences in my head. What if she blames me for not helping her? What if she doesn’t understand my point of view? It took me a couple of weeks before telling her my decision. And her reply was she already knew I would say no.

People can accept rejections better than you think. Both times, things ended not as bad as I imagined to be. Both of them kindly accepted the rejections and moved on. So the lesson here is don’t make assumptions about how people would react to your rejections. You never know until you say no.

3. Know your worth

One reason why people feel guilty to say no is because they don’t know their self-worth. They either think that other people’s needs are more important than theirs or they associate their self-worth with the fulfillment of other people’s needs. These are especially true for mothers.

Most mothers felt responsible for their children’s success. If their children are successful, they are good mothers. If not, they are bad mothers. They tend to neglect their own needs while serving the needs of their children. And because they are so used to taking care of their children’s needs, they forget their children have the capability to satisfy their own needs as they grow older. They don’t have to say yes to their children’s requests all the time.

Your self-worth doesn’t depend on how much you do for other people.

You are as important as everyone else. Your needs need to be met in order for you to stay happy and balanced. Caring for yourself and fulfilling your needs isn’t selfish. In fact, they are your responsibilities.

Respect yourself. Set personal boundaries and be firm with them. Don’t let someone forces you to do something you are not comfortable with. Understand you have a choice and don’t apologize for saying no.

4. Realize that honesty is the best policy

Saying yes to something when you don’t mean it is the worst. Imagine saying yes to an invitation that you have no intention of going. Usually, two things will happen:

  1. You force yourself to go. You don’t enjoy the event and you regret saying yes.
  2. You come up with some lies and excuses so that you don’t have to turn up for the event.

Both don’t make you feel good — you either blame yourself or feel bad for lying.

Realize that it doesn’t serve the other person too when you are not committed. Not participating in the event fully, doing the work you agreed half-heartedly, or having resentment for the other person for inviting you can be avoided when you say no.

Not only are you lying to the other person, but you are also lying to yourself.

What’s even worse is you are not being true to yourself. You disregard your priorities, integrity, and values when you say yes but don’t mean it.

Be honest with the other person. Don’t be around the bush. Just explain why you can’t do it. Even if you just don’t feel like it, say you don’t feel like it. It’s better to be honest than to make up some excuses.

When it’s something personal and you don’t wish to share it, give a generic but honest answer. For example, “I’ve some family matters which I can’t be disclosed.” You don’t have to explain your reasons in-depth. Ask the other person to pardon you for the lack of explanation.

5. Know your limits

Some people felt guilty saying no to requests. But what if you say yes and not delivered what you promised? Wouldn’t you feel more guilty?

Accept the fact that you can’t do everything.

Don’t promise what you cannot do. If you say yes and later, it turns out you can’t do it. Not only will people lose faith in you, it hurts them too. By agreeing to something, you are effectively building up their expectations. People put their trust in you. They trust that you have checked your own schedule, you know your own limitations and you know that you can do it. It’s doesn’t matter if you really want to do it or not, if you don’t do it, you betray their trust, and that hurts.

Apart from emotional hurt, not delivering what you promised also affects the other person’s schedule. I had a book cover designer for Fearless Passion, who promised to give me three drafts within two days. After three weeks, I still have no draft from him. I had to fire him because he was slowing down my production.

Don’t feel guilty saying no. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it. There’s nothing wrong with saying no.

6. Learn from your mistakes

Sometimes, you don’t even know why you say yes because you are being persuaded or manipulated. Don’t blame yourself for that. Instead, understand the tactics people are using to get you to say yes and learn from your mistakes.

Here are a few examples:

  • Bullying: People with higher authority and power force or threaten you to do something.
  • Guilting: People make you feel like a bad person for not saying yes.
  • Complimenting: People say they can’t do it without you and boost your self-worth so that you will say yes.
  • Whining: People keep pestering you to do something until you say yes.
  • Diverting: People start with something that is irrelevant and then slowly leads you to what they want.

Come out with your own strategies to counter each situation.

I used to say yes easily. Now, I had to come up with my own SOP (standard operating procedures) to counter each situation. For example, if a bank called me to sell something, they always start with “dear sir, do you have time right now?” I used to say yes because I really do have time (even though that doesn’t mean I want to hear the sales pitch!)

Now, instead of answering their question, I’ll throw a couple of questions back at them, “What is this call regarding? Could you summarize it in one sentence?” And after they answer, I will say “Thank you but I’m not interested” and hang up. Telemarketers don’t take no for an answer, the more you talk with them and the more you explain, the more opportunities you give them to persuade you.

So be polite, but cut them off before they get you to say yes.

7. Keep practicing

To be better at saying no, you have to keep practicing. I used to avoid the insurance agents outside the subway stations. However, many years ago on one Christmas Eve, I was caught off guard by an insurance agent. She asked me to do a survey and I say yes. Somehow, the survey led to me signing up for an insurance plan that I had no intention of buying it.

But after a few days, when I had time to reflect I realize the insurance plan doesn’t serve me at all. I said yes so that I could carry on with my Christmas shopping. And I stopped because she said it’s Christmas Eve and she had to work. So I sympathized with her and agreed to help her with the survey. Luckily, I hadn’t paid any money yet, so I canceled my plan with her. However, both of us wasted our time going through all the procedures.

Avoidance isn’t effective. You need to learn how to say no.

From that day, I knew that avoiding insurance agents aren’t effective enough. I need to learn how to say no to them. So ever since, I walk past them confidently. When they try to stop me, I’ll just smile back and say no while continuing walking to my destination.

At first, it would be tough. But as you practice more, you’ll get more confident with it.

Featured Photo Credit: Untitled / Rowena Waack