I used to hate saying no. Personally and professionally, it made me so unbelievably uncomfortable. I was constantly over-committing myself, agreeing to work on projects that I didn’t have time for, and forcing myself to go to social events that I really didn’t want to go to. My anxiety about saying no outweighed my self-preservation and self-care, and it was exhausting. I got so wrapped up in what I “should” be doing, whether it was work, volunteer work, socializing, or anything else, that I completely failed to advocate for or take care of myself.
When things got really bad for me last year, learning to say no was no longer optional. Every day felt like an uphill battle, and I had to carefully guard what little energy I had. I couldn’t work on extra projects or socialize every night of the week, even if I wanted to (which I didn’t). Even though it made my skin crawl every time I did it, I kept finding new and different ways to say no.
I really wasn’t prepared for what happened next: people were super understanding. With the exception of a few people who aren’t in my life anymore (and those two things are definitely related), all of my friends, family, and coworkers responded really well. No one yelled at me or made me feel guilty, and little by little, I started to get more comfortable saying no. Let me tell you, the first time I turned down an invite to a party I really didn’t want to go to and instead ordered takeout and watched a movie at home, it was like Holy crap. Saying no is awesome.
Now? I love saying no! I’ve gotten to know myself so much better and I’ve upped my self-care game enough that I know pretty much right away whether something will be good for me, or whether I should give it a big “thanks, but no thanks” and move on with my life. That being said, this didn’t happen overnight. I struggled with saying no for a lot of reasons, but one of them was that I didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the people I love and respect and I didn’t want to isolate myself or keep myself from getting invited to things in the future.
So I (somewhat unintentionally) came up with this list of ways to say no that stay true to myself and my needs without hurting anyone’s feelings:
- “I can’t commit to being in charge of this project, but I would really like to be a part of it. Is there a smaller way I could contribute?”
- “I don’t have the energy to go out to dinner. Do you want to come over and order takeout with me instead?”
- “I’m sorry, I’m just not up for hanging out right now.”
- “I really can’t take on another project right now, but I bet [insert competent colleague’s name here] would be able to help.”
- “I’m not feeling well, can we get together another time?” (Note: don’t lie about being sick, but if you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or just plain worn out, those are equally valid ways to not feel well.)
- “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to make it to your party. How can I make it up to you?”
- “I’m going to pass this time, but thanks for thinking of me!”
- “I need some time by myself. Can we do something next week instead?”
- “I’m going to stay in tonight, but have fun!”
- “That sounds like a great [project/idea/trip/outing], but I just don’t have time for it right now.”
- “That just doesn’t sound like it’s going to be fun for me. I’m going to pass.” (This one’s best to use with family and very close friends who know you well enough to know this isn’t a slight, just the truth.)
- “I don’t think it’s going to work out this time. Maybe next time!”
- “No, thanks!” Simple, but effective.
Saying no isn’t complicated, but it isn’t easy either. Be as honest as you feel comfortable being, and don’t make up excuses. It’s always okay to make the decision that is best for you and your mental health, even if other people don’t like it. Don’t let the guilt and “shoulds” overshadow that. If the people in your life care for and respect you, they’ll understand. And if they don’t, maybe you need to find better people.