You may have heard it said, "Sometimes saying 'no' to someone else says 'yes' to yourself" — to your emotional needs, your desires, your dreams or even your safety. But knowing the practice is wise and acting on it are completely different things. When you have "the disease to please," concern over letting others down or coming across as mean or selfish, standing up for your personal boundaries can seem daunting.
Luckily, you don't have to act or feel mean to decline a request or invitation. If you tend to over-commit, obliging too often when your inner voice suggests otherwise, consider the following strategies. You can stay your kind, generous self and uphold your boundaries at the same time.
1. Remember: Saying “No” Can Save Relationships
"But I'll hurt their feelings!" Sound familiar? It might feel as though turning someone down protects the person's feelings, but frequently saying "yes" when "no" feels right could lead to resentment down the road. And resentment can destroy relationships, according to The Gottman Institute.
"When our people do things that we aren't okay with but we don't say so, those issues build up over time," says marriage and family therapist, Shadeen Francis. "If the problems continue to occur but are never addressed, ultimately our hurt and anger turns into resentment." Setting clear and healthy boundaries, on the other hand, helps everyone involved.
2. Use the Oxygen Mask Analogy
When you're on a plane, you're instructed to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping someone else. That should apply to self-care, too. You really can't help, support or stay present with others as fully if your own emotional tank is running low.
The fact that you're concerned about saying no without seeming mean shows that you're a caring person. Keeping that in mind and focus on compassion for yourself and those who care about you — because really, caring individuals want what's best for you.
"Boundaries are not a rejection of another person, but a compassionate act of advocating for yourself!" says Francis. "It is much kinder on your relationship to honor your limits, wants and needs, rather than to avoid saying 'no' by acquiescing or avoiding the issue."
3. Provide an Alternative You’re Comfortable With
"No" doesn't have to end of the conversation or rule out parts you're up for. By providing an alternative, you can protect your own needs and desires without rejecting the other person.
"I always prefer helping people find a lovingly honest way to say 'no, thank you' versus ignoring a request, being curt or making up a lie," says Lisa Lovelace, a licensed psychologist and founder of Synergy eTherapy. "Be polite, be gracious and be honest."
If someone invites you to a party, yet social anxiety makes it anything but appealing to you, for example, you could say, "I won't make it to the party, but I'd love to see you another time. How about lunch next Tuesday?"
4. If It Helps Keep You Safe, Lie
One exception to the honesty guideline involves your personal safety. If someone gives you the creeps, trust your gut. As security specialist Gavin de Becker wrote in The Gift of Fear, "Intuition is always right in at least two important ways. It is always in response to something. It always has your best interest at heart."
If someone asks to sit beside you at a cafe and you don't feel comfortable, say whatever you wish to uphold your boundaries — even if it's deceptive. Even then, you don't have to respond in a way that feels mean. You could say, "I'm waiting for someone," for example.
5. Schedule “You Time” Like a Meeting
Scheduling time to tend to your own needs and desires makes doing so more concrete and less easy to fall to the wayside when others request your time. Lovelace recommends creating blocking out "you time," and then taking it seriously.
"Treat this 'you time' as a real event that can't be double booked," she says. "You'll have less stress in saying 'no' if you really do have a scheduled event at that time. Even if it is just for a 30-minute for walk or two hours to read the paper and drink coffee, if you schedule time to yourself you will have an easier time saying no." You'll also have a more balanced schedule and more energy for attending social events you want to attend.
6. Use Direct “I” Statements
Keeping the focus on your needs and feelings when declining an offer can help minimize any feelings of meanness, says Francis, and direct statements are ideal.
"Rather than saying, 'No, I don't want to go with you because you always take so long to get ready, and then I'm stuck waiting for you most of the night,' it's enough to say, 'No thanks, I don't want to go,'" she says. "If the person pursues a deeper explanation, focus on your feelings rather than logistics: 'I often feel impatient or uncomfortable when we go to those events, so I would rather do something else.'" (You can offer an alternative per #3.)
7. Consider the Situation in Reverse
Let's say you don't want to attend a gathering because it's your only free night all week and you could really use extra sleep. Now imagine you're hosting the gathering. You invite a friend who attends, only to find out that she showed up stressed out and exhausted and only attended for your sake. You might be thankful she made the effort, but you also care about your friend's well-being.
Feeling guilty at the prospect of saying "no" often stems from an assumption that you'll hurt the other person and they'll retaliate, says psychologist Ellen Hendriksen. "Maybe your requestor will be momentarily disappointed, but understand and then get help elsewhere," she writes on Quick and Dirty Tips.
8. Stronger “Nos” Invite Stronger “Yeses”
The adage really is true. Every time you say "no" to one person or opportunity, you inevitably say "yes" to something else. No one can be in two places or get everything done at once.
As TV producer Shonda Rhimes wrote in Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person, "Happiness comes from living as you need to, as you want to. As your inner voice tells you to. Happiness comes from being who you actually are instead of who you think you are supposed to be."
A 2010 Korean study linked a sense of powerless — which can happen if you feel obligated to say "yes" to most everything others ask of you — with depression. So with every difficult "no," remind yourself that your wellbeing is worth it.