Learn the Best Way to Say No

I take good care of myself. My family, friends, and clients know this about me. I would not be surprised if behind closed doors I’ve been described as selfish. I am actually all right with that; I own it. I worked at taking care of myself as a matter of necessity and I do it for many reasons, including that it helps me be a better person. What a paradox! To be a better person, I have learned to be ok with acting selfishly. Let me explain:

Giving is wonderful and necessary. But when we give too much we can become depleted, sick or depressed from resentment. Then we have nothing left to give others.

Staying healthy depends on sometimes saying no.

We all know these dilemmas: A friend or neighbor asks a favor. The boss asks you to stay late. Your partner asks you to run an errand. There are many situations when we wish we knew how to say no.

To learn how to say no, I had to overcome three challenges:   
  • How to say NO in a kind way
  • Tolerating the guilt afterward
  • Soothing my shame
Learning the best way to say no

Never underestimate the power of language and tone of voice. I make it a point to communicate in a caring tone that I understand the need. “I know you hate going to parties by yourself. I truly get that. And, I am just so tired that I really need to rest tonight.” Or, “I really hear that you need someone to walk your dog while you’re away. Unfortunately, I can’t help you out this time. I hope you find someone.”

In each of these examples, I convey my understanding. I try not to sound defensive or angry. I use “I” statements, conveying that I own that I cannot do what they are asking.

Tolerating the guilt: a choice between guilt and resentment  

When I am struggling with guilt, I remind myself of my healthy reasons for saying no and I remember I can make it up to the person when I have more ability to give. Then, I try to take my mind off my guilt by doing something replenishing like taking a walk, working on a project, or calling a friend. My goal is to tolerate the guilt; wait it out. Guilt, like all feelings, is temporary and will fade. The more you practice setting limits, the easier it gets.

Soothing my shame: what makes a good person? 

No one is perfect, although many people I work with strive to be just that. But perfect for who? Who’s the person – in our minds – we are trying to be perfect for? The answer is often an internalized parent or a harsh part of us. When we don’t meet or own standards for giving, it brings up shame.

When suffering shame for merely taking care of yourself, try this brief exercise. You can follow the written instructions below, or listen to the soothing audio recording below instead.

Find a nice quiet place to sit. Close your eyes. Feel your feet on the floor. Take 5 deep breaths as you feel yourself slowing down. Now, see if you can make a little space between you and the part of you that feels shame. Offer that shamed part of you some compassion like you would a friend who was suffering. Notice what happens inside. Repeat this every time the shame starts to take over. Just the process of sitting, grounding your feet on the floor, breathing, making space between you and your suffering, and offering compassion, helps the brain in many ways.

Saying no is hard, and sometimes we need support and encouragement to do it. But the process of learning where your boundaries begin is worth it. You’ll feel better and your relationships will improve. Knowing you are loved for who you are, flaws, limits and all, brings happiness and freedom. In fact, my friends, family, and colleagues say they are never afraid to ask me for things because they know if I can’t do something I’ll say no. And, of course, very often I am able and happy to say YES!

I would not be surprised if behind closed doors I’ve been described as selfish. And, I would not be surprised if I have also been described as kind, smart, balanced, caring, considerate and loving. When you set limits by saying no, remember to hold in your mind all qualities of you, not just the “selfish” part that is taking good care of yourself in the moment.

– Hilary



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