Learn how to say no without feeling guilty

It's all too easy to get stuck in a people-pleasing cycle that guilts you into saying yes. Natalie Lue lays down new 'no' rules to live by

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Picture this: you’re chilling at home after a long day, when a text comes through. For a split second, you plan to ignore it.

But then you start to fear that it might be something really important, so you grab your phone, only to discover that it’s you-know-who: that certain someone that we all have, or have had, in our lives who only gets in touch or starts being super-nice when they want something.

It might be an ex, pretending that they’re not after a little late night liaison. It might be that friend or family member wanting money, or for you to babysit for the umpteenth time, or to push their latest problems onto you.

Maybe it’s that one co-worker who likes to dump their work on you at the last second, all while complimenting you on how helpful you are.

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You want to say no, knowing that what’s being asked isn’t fair, nor reasonable, and that it will, quite simply, result in you feeling pretty icky about yourself and life in general. But, almost as if hypnotised, you comply.

You silence your inner voice and suppress a flood of unpleasant feelings, possibly assuming that they’re there because you dared to contemplate saying no. This is exactly what saying yes for the wrong reasons feels like.

It’s going along with things and playing ‘nicey-nicey’, so that you look a certain way to others. It’s guilting and obliging yourself into doing something. It’s worrying about hurting feelings, or fearing that maybe you’ve misinterpreted their intentions and behaviour in the past – you simply have to give them another chance. Basically, you’re doing your best to ‘be good’, except you wind up feeling bad.

You do imagine saying no, but end up picturing death by a thousand bullets. The truth is, this grossly exaggerates the negative consequences of a ‘no’, while at the same time minimises the very real toll of self-neglect.

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Why saying no is good for you

Saying yes for the wrong reasons means that your outside doesn’t match your inside. It’s a gradual crushing of your soul that steals your joy, while also doing a number on your self-esteem. It takes away time, energy, effort and emotion from the people and things that you care about.

When I recently wrestled with myself about declining an invitation from a loved one, I knew it would be wrong to oblige myself into committing to this family occasion, just to keep up appearances. But I worried about disappointing him, about how I’d look, and I basically imagined everyone talking about me.

Tuning into my feelings was a revelation – there was dread and anxiety about saying no, but also resentment and anxiety about saying yes.

I would have ended up criticising myself, feeling angry because of how I’d obliged myself. Plus, the stress of my indecision was impacting me, as well as my children and husband.

Natalie Lue
Natalie Lue

As a recovering people-pleaser – that’s someone who will attempt to please others, taking care of their feelings and behaviour at the expense of their own needs, expectations, desires, feelings or opinions – I realised a couple of fundamental truths about life: if you don’t know how to say no, you don’t how to say yes, and doing things for the wrong reasons is both wrong for you and your relationships.

Saying yes out of a misguided sense of obligation feels entirely different to saying yes because you actually want to.

If you’re saying yes because you’re scared of saying no and you’re trying to cup the ocean in your hands to make everyone see you in a certain way, then halt. That’s not an authentic yes; Jedi mind tricks just aren’t possible and you are guaranteed to feel bad about yourself.

You’re not obliged to give up your time and energy when you can’t fit it in, nor to listen to others dumping on you when you don’t want to, nor do you have to go along with other people’s decisions when doing so is to your detriment and exacerbates feelings of low self-worth.

These aren’t in your job description and you can say no to them – you’re a grown-up with both autonomy and power.

People will survive if you say no – they might even have to ask someone else or, heaven forbid, think, feel and act for themselves! No one is entitled to your ‘yes’ and if they’re acting up because you said no, it’s a surefire sign that one was very overdue.

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If you’ve always complied, how will they know that you’re not cool with something? If they don’t think that you have a limit, how will they know where that limit lies in their requests? If they’re not used to you saying no sometimes, how will they know not to push it when you finally do?

This leads to one more fundamental truth: we are responsible for where we invest our energies – it’s up to us to manage our boundaries.

Am I saying yes for the wrong reasons?

Saying yes for the wrong reasons also means that the other party is receiving yes for the wrong reasons, damaging the integrity of the relationship and, quite frankly, sheltering them from their responsibilities. Who’s worrying about your feelings when you’re worrying about theirs?

It’s time to look after you, so that you can take care of your relationships in a healthier way. When we stop breaking the commitments that we’ve made to ourselves, including our need for self-care, there’s far less room for our inner critic to wreak havoc in our lives.

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A friend once gave me some great advice: sometimes all that someone needs out of a transaction is to be told no. Basically, yes isn’t always the answer. We don’t overcome our fear of conflict and criticism if we never exercise our ability to consciously choose what we say ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ to.

It can sometimes feel uncomfortable to acknowledge that a relationship is imbalanced or that a certain someone tends to have an ulterior motive, but it can also be freeing.

In choosing the right boundaries for this person, things will not only feel healthier for you, but will also allow you to invest yourself in the people and activities that raise you up, rather than drag you down.

How to stop being a people pleaser podcast with Natalie Lue

In this episode of the In The Moment Magazine podcast, we talk to Natalie Lue about why we tend to please others and push our own needs aside.

Listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Acast.

This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine, issue 5. Discover our latest subscription offer, or buy back issues online.

Photos by Alyssa Strohmann, Phillipe Cavalcante, Oleg Magni, Tiko Giorgadze and Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

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