How to Say No :: Five Beginner Strategies for the Recovering People Pleaser


My worst nightmare is an open-ended question like, “What are you doing on Sunday?” 

Why do you want to know? Are you about to watch my kid, offer to clean my house, and send me to a spa for the day? Or are you about to ask me to do something I desperately don’t want to do when my schedule is already jam packed full of to-dos?

We’re all so extremely busy, and we all know it’s not good for us. It’s important that we fill our time with the things that really matter. There are a few obligations on the to-do list that are unpleasant and have to be done. But, there are many, many other things that have landed on our plates that we don’t actually have to do. It can be hard to turn down an opportunity. It can be hard to let down someone who says they need your help. It’s scary to feel like we’re missing out. But, we have to figure out a way to set some limits and to take back some of our time.

I’m here to remind you: It’s okay to say no.

Stop Square

It’s okay to say no because you are busy. You ARE busy. It’s okay to say no because you’re tired. You ARE tired. It’s okay to say no because it’s not in your budget. It’s okay to say no because someone else might be better prepared to do the job. It’s okay to say no because it just doesn’t feel right for you. It’s okay to say no because you just plain old don’t want to.

It is okay to say no, and it’s important. In fact, saying no is way better than doing something you don’t want to do with a rotten attitude, and it’s definitely better than killing yourself doing something you don’t have time for. What’s not okay is saying yes when you really mean no. That’s dishonest. It’s unfair to you, and it’s unfair to the person you are committing to.

But, saying no can be really hard. I totally understand. I’ve actually become really good at saying no over time, but I don’t always like it. We want to make people happy. We want them to like us. We want them to feel like they can count on us. And we want to be seen as valuable, important — indispensable. When you start to ask yourself why you feel this way, the answers are sometimes scary and unpleasant. This is complicated heart work, and if saying no to people is particularly difficult for you, it’s probably worth investigating. But, that’s an awfully big job and best left to the experts: Girlfriends and therapists. Grab some chocolate and give one of them a call.

In the meantime, I have a few tips and tricks to help you get started.

Defer and Deter

Okay, Momma, if you’re really a beginner, this one may be for you. You don’t actually have to say no right away. It’s a good option for when you’re caught off guard. You may just need to buy yourself some time to work up the nerve to let them down. Step one: Put off your decision until later. Step two: Change the subject immediately.

Try saying:

  • “Let me think about that one. What’s that you’re reading?”
  • “Hmmm. I’ll have to check. Are your guys playing soccer this season?”
  • “I’m pretty busy, but I’ll check my calendar. Hey, is that Marcy over there?”

Offer an Alternative

Easy peasy. This one is a lot like saying yes. You just get to pick what exactly you want to say yes to.

Give these a go:

  • “I’m not going to be able to volunteer at the event, but I can email the invites for you.”
  • “This weekend doesn’t work for me, but I’d love to get together next month, when things are little less busy for me.”
  • “I can’t watch your kids on Saturday, but maybe my husband can.” (Okay, this one is maybe a stretch. Or maybe not. That husband of mine doesn’t mind taking a couple rowdy kids to the park on a nice day. You never know!)

red lightMake a Rule

It’s easier to say no if there is no room for negotiation. If you always say no to the same thing, then you don’t have to think about it. The trick is to stick to it and not to bend. You have to decide ahead of time what’s not for you and then protect it. 

  • “We don’t do sleepovers. It’s a rule.”
  • “I never do business with friends. It’s a rule.”
  • “Sundays are for family time. It’s a rule.”

Be Bold (and Laugh It off)

Listen to me, if you put a great big smile on your face, and say to your neighbor, “No way! I’m not doing that!” and then laugh, she’ll be so surprised, she won’t know what to say next. Trust me. I know this from experience. The secret to these lines is to smile and to commit. Don’t apologize. Don’t cave. Dig in and giggle.

  • “Nope. Nope. Nope. Not for me.”
  • “That’s a firm no.”
  • “No way, dude!”
  • “Negative. No way. Not gonna happen.”

For each of these, I also recommend that you put your arms up in great big Family Feud-style X in front of your face. Buzzer sound effect is optional, but beneficial and convincing.

Don’t Apologize

Be firm, and don’t back down. You aren’t doing anything wrong. Don’t say, “I’m really sorry. I really wish I could,” when you’re not sorry and you really wish they hadn’t asked. When you do this, you send a mixed message and open the door for further negotiation and even manipulation.

You’re a grown-up. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. If someone doesn’t respect your no, they don’t respect you. Of course, if you really are sorry and you really do wish you could,  you can say that, too. Just make sure it’s the truth. 

The secret to learning to say no is the same as learning any other new skill. You have to practice, practice, practice. Practice in the mirror. Practice with your dog. Practice on your husband. Practice on your kids. (We all know how often they need it.) Practice on the sales clerk offering you a credit card in the checkout line. Practice at the theater when you’re asked if you want to the refillable extra large cup for only 75 cents more. Practice with telemarketers and with the man who ignored your “no soliciting” sign and knocked anyway, waking the baby. Practice at Starbucks when your barista offers you a cake pop with your latte.

Or maybe take the cake pop. You deserve it.

You can do this. It is hard, but you can do hard things. Once you’ve let go of the things you don’t want to do, you’ll feel so much better about the things you say yes to when you are able to do them joyfully.

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Heather grew up in Texas and graduated from TCU. Since then, she has made her home in Fort Worth with her husband, her seven-year-old son, one dog, two birds, two frogs and way too many fish. She’s a sucker for a critter and an underdog. Heather has been a teacher for more than 15 years and is currently teaching third grade. She prefers mornings spent watching the Today Show with a cup of coffee and evenings spent on the porch with a margarita. She loves a good, long book, Blue Bell Dutch chocolate ice cream, and relishing every single second of summer.


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