How to Be Better at Saying No — For Your Own Sanity
Admit it: You can’t remember the last time you didn’t respond “I’m so busy” when someone asked how you were doing. And yet, you keep piling on more and more responsibilities at home, work, and even socially.
The result? You’re stressed out, exhausted, and low on energy (no surprise, there). But experts say you’re doing yourself — and your loved ones — a disservice when you persistently say “yes” to every opportunity.
Understanding why exactly this habit is so seductive and discovering tactics that will empower you to flip the script can allow you to confidently, firmly say no when necessary.
Why Saying “Yes” Is So Appealing
Here’s the reality: for many of us, it feels good to say yes. After all, it’s what the people around you want to hear — your affirmative answer is the likable, accommodating choice.
“There is often a desire to be agreeable, to be giving, and to be appreciated as a person who can do all those things,” says Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.
People don’t want to disappoint their friends, family, and coworkers, says Dr. Saltz. And often, our self-image is tied to our habit of saying yes. We all want to feel like we’re expert-level jugglers, she says.
The Benefits of Saying “No”
Sure, saying yes may feel good in the moment. But the end result isn’t always pretty.
“You’ve committed yourself to a million things and aren’t doing any of them as well as you could be,” says Dr. Saltz. No one’s happy in this situation, since you do not have the emotional space or energy to devote to loved ones. “When you’re giving crumbs to everyone, a lot of people end of being kind of dissatisfied, particularly the people who matter to you the most,” says Dr. Saltz.
Emotionally, you may feel resentment or suffer from lowered self-esteem, says Anthony P. DeMaria, PhD, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist and associate director of adult ambulatory psychiatry at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai West Hospitals in New York City.
Sky-high stress levels can leads to a “chronic release of cortisol that takes a toll on the body and brain from a health perspective,” says Dr. Saltz. You may even find yourself getting ill or experiencing pain related to chronic stress, she says. This is your body’s way of saying “I can’t” when you’re unwilling to utter the words.
Bottom line: When you default to yes in response to any request, the word loses its meaning, says Dr. Saltz. It’s not the reverse of no, but instead it can mean anything from “I feel guilty” to “It’s easier to say yes than no” to “I guess I have to,” she notes.
How to Make “No” Your New Normal
If you’ve been saying yes by default for years, or even decades, you might find it a hard habit to kick. “Making life changes can be very unsettling and, for many, sticking with the status quo is the easier thing to do,” says Eirene Heidelberger, certified parent coach and founder of GIT Mom. Still, it’s doable—try these simple strategies to get started.
If it’s been a while since you’ve said no, you may have forgotten how. Practice will help! “Role-play some one-liners you can use over and over again when you want to say no to someone,” suggests Heidelberger. Aim to be kind and professional but also firm, she says. You can practice in front of a mirror or role-play with a friend, says Dr. DeMaria.
2. Start small.
No need to dive into the deep end right away; Start weaning yourself from your yes-woman tendencies with easy, low-risk options. “Pick something that doesn’t feel like a high stakes game, and just practice saying no in a nice assertive way,” says Dr. Saltz.
3. Be realistic.
“If this is new to you, remember that it will not feel easy, natural, authentic, or comfortable at first,” says Dr. DeMaria. But take heart — it’ll get easier. Most importantly, resist the urge to add justifications or excuses.
4. Think of it as self-care.
Keep this in mind the next time you’re weighing doing a friend a favor over your planned night of relaxation: Your needs matter. “If your personal well is empty, you really don’t have anything much to actually give to people,” she says. “Being in tune with yourself and doing things for yourself — what I would call self care — is not being selfish in the way that we as a society use that word negatively.” Sometimes, selfishness is necessary.
5. Look to others.
Do you have a friend or cousin who’s skilled at drawing healthy, appropriate boundaries? We’re talking the kind of person who says no without following it up with extended explanations or excuses, and who doesn’t suffer from guilt and regrets afterward. Study and emulate these people in your life. “You can draw from their ability as a resource, just as you would tap an expert to help you learn any other skill,” says Dr. DeMaria.
6. Fake it ‘til you make it.
When all else fails, Dr. DeMaria recommends acting confident, even if it’s not how you actually feel. “This is not suggesting that you invalidate your feelings of hesitation or insecurity, but that you actively work towards engaging in effective interpersonal behaviors,” he notes.