How to Stop Feeling Guilty About Telling People No
March 5, 2022 10:00 AM EST | 8 min read
You can stop feeling guilty for telling people ‘no’ by better understanding why we feel guilty in the first place—and by learning to say no more effectively.
Guilt is an emotion we feel when we think we are doing something wrong.
What is it about saying no that makes us think it is the wrong thing to do?
Often when we tell someone no, we feel like we are being selfish.
Being kind and helpful are noble qualities, and most want to (or think we should) help those around us.
When we say we can’t we wonder if we are just a terrible person.
You will feel a lot better knowing that isn’t the case!
Our desire to overextend ourselves leads to stress and people-pleasing
How often have you said yes to helping someone out with something, knowing that you didn’t have the time to add anything else to your plate?
Did you do it because you feared if you told them no, they would be hurt?
Or worse, they might be angry with you.
No one likes it when people are upset because of us or angry at us.
So, to spare ourselves those feelings we set off to start pleasing everyone.
Suddenly, you find yourself burning the candle at both ends.
Maybe you are staying up way too late now studying for a test because you decided to help someone else with their all-day project.
The ramifications for this have now led to you being stressed about your commitments.
You are also going to take a test with little sleep.
Maybe you will still get a good grade, or maybe you won’t.
Either way, the extra stress and strain on your body were unwarranted.
You do not have to be a people-pleaser for people to love and care about you.
Saying yes when you really shouldn’t isn’t good for you.
Tips for how to say no without feeling guilty
The first step of saying no with less guilt takes a little while to get through.
It involves changing your mindset and paying attention to the other people around you who say no.
Your brain is telling you that people will be angry at you.
You think they may not want to be friends with you anymore, or maybe you will get into some kind of conflict with them about it.
Instead of thinking that way, ask yourself about you feel when people tell you no.
Are you disappointed they can’t help you out?
Sure, I mean, you asked for help for a reason, so of course, someone saying no is going to make you feel disappointed.
But are you disappointed because the answer to your problem is not as easy as you tried to make it, or do you get disappointed in the person?
This is a big difference.
I doubt you suddenly decided that your friend is an awful troll because they couldn’t help you.
Recognize that when you say no to people, they will likely feel the same way.
If they really do hate you because you said you couldn’t help them today, are these the kind of people you need in your life?
Learn to pay attention to the people around you who say no.
How are they saying it?
What is the reaction of the people who got told no?
It is most likely acceptance.
You can not make other people help you, and almost everybody knows that.
Open up your mind to the possibility that when you say no, you will get this same reaction instead of the one you are dreading.
Setting boundaries will help you stop feeling guilty for saying no
Boundaries are a reflection of your core values.
To understand your core values and how to set effective boundaries, you need to dig deep.
Ask yourself what motivates you, be clear about the vision you have for your life, and know what your own needs are.
It might seem selfish when you think about saying yes or no and personal motivation.
The truth is that it is not selfish to understand why you do things.
It is necessary and will build your self-esteem.
If you’re saying yes to someone is motivated by fear of their reaction and not because you want to help, then say no.
If you genuinely want to help someone, whether because it benefits you later in some way or simply makes you feel good, then say yes.
The problem with saying no when your motivation is not aligned is that it will make you feel stressed or resentful.
Don’t do that to yourself.
Help someone because you want to—for whatever those reasons are.
Once you discover and can be truthful about what you want in your life, it will become easier to say yes or no because the boundaries will be easy to see.
For instance, let’s say that it is important to you that you eat dinner with your family every night.
If someone asks for help in a way that interrupts this, you could say no.
Is it a one-time thing or an emergency?
Then if it would make you feel good to help them, you might say yes.
The bottom line is that it is up to you!
Let’s say you have this same boundary, and your boss asks you to take over someone else’s evening shift three days a week.
This should be an easy no as it doesn’t align with your boundary.
Saying no effectively and leaving the guilt behind
How are you going to say no in either situation?
You don’t have to be mean, but you do need to be clear and concise.
Be brief and keep it simple.
You might offer a short explanation, but you do not need to justify why you are saying no.
With the friend, you might try something like, “I would like to help you out, but I am not available during that time frame.”
If you really do want to help you could ask if there is any way they could do whatever this is at a different time.
Making a counteroffer that works better for you is not a bad thing.
It could very well let you help the person while still keeping your boundaries in place.
Depending on what the situation is, you will have to decide how to go about making your counteroffer.
However, only offer something that you can and are willing to do!
You can do the same thing in the scenario about work.
If something happened to the evening shift person and your boss is in a bind, you could offer to help out once if you wanted to.
Again, these counteroffers are up to you.
Only do what you can that doesn’t add an abundance of stress to yourself.
Stop feeling guilty and letting people pressure you into saying yes
Once you have offered what you can or said no, the other person should have enough respect to accept that.
However, if they continue to push or try to make you feel guilty—stand your ground.
Don’t apologize for it either!
You haven’t done something wrong by ensuring your health and core values are protected.
You can simply say things like:
- I have given you the best options I have, and that is all I can do
- I gave your request plenty of thought, and I am not going to change my answer
- I understand you need help, but unfortunately, I am unable to do that
This will likely cause conflict now if we have entered the phase where someone is actively pressuring you to change your mind.
Instead, they should be devoting this energy to finding a different solution to their problem.
They could ask someone else or find a way to accept whatever help you offer.
If they approached the problem with the tenacity they are using to convince you to change your mind, they would likely find an answer.
Some final thoughts about saying no without feeling guilty
Nobody can make you feel guilty, we choose to feel guilty.
If you want to help someone, and you can, that’s great.
It does make us feel good to help others.
If you can’t, though, you have to retrain your mind to know that it is ok to say no.
Be honest about why you are saying no.
Don’t make up a story, that will only add to the guilt.
You don’t have to tell your boss that you are unwilling to work evenings because that conflicts with dinner time if you don’t want to.
But don’t create another excuse because you think that will be more acceptable to your boss.
Own your values and the things that are important to you.
Tell us about a time you felt empowered by telling someone no, instead of feeling guilty, using the comment section below.
Feel free to share any tips that helped you in that situation.