It was the kind of text that made my shoulders slump. A friend of a friend had asked me to write a short e-book for her business. "It's super short," she explained, obviously hoping I'd be able to squeeze it in within the next week. It was a paying job, but I knew my schedule was already maxed out for months. Still, because of that nagging little voice that whispers, "If you don't do it, she won't like you anymore," I mulled it over momentarily, thinking maybe I could carve out some time over the weekend.
But the thought of hammering keys on my days off made my heart sink. Of course, I was honored at the request, but the truth is I just didn't want to flip-flop my schedule to take it on. I'd committed to not working on the weekends and to commit to anything new during the week would not be honoring myself or my time.
So, despite feeling a bit anxious, I said, "Honey, thank you so much for thinking of me for this project. That means a lot, but my schedule is jam-packed for months and I've committed to not taking on anything new—even for dear friends like you. Thank you for understanding and best wishes for your book endeavor!"
Sure, I felt a little nervous to send it, but I also felt relieved. I had honored myself. One thing I've learned over the years is that what I want matters. People are burning the candle at both ends, and we live in what seems to be a people-pleasing, just-say-yes culture.
I bet most people you know are overly busy, super-stressed, and bordering on burnout at almost any given moment. For some reason, we think we're showing weakness or selfishness if we say no.
As a former disciple of Camp Codependent, I've done my share of laps in the people-pleasing pool and, let me tell you, it gets exhausting.
You know when that guy at work comes up to you and says, "Hey, a bunch of us are catching a couple brewskies after work? Wanna go?" Time stops. You envision raising that glass and toasting to a great life. You can almost taste the finely crafted beer, but the truth is that you're wiped out. You were out late last night with the wife (who insisted you attend a dinner party), you've been up since 5 a.m., and work has been hell today.
You want to say no. You need to say no. But before you know it, you're blurting, "Sure! Sounds great!" and immediately that feeling of dread pops up. Oh, great. Another obligation.
Here's something you may not know: Most people want to say no to more than half of the things they're asked to commit to. So, why don't they? Why the pressure to go against what you actually want?
For me, it was that I just didn't know how to make boundaries. When I tried, my heart would start racing and my tongue would tie itself up. It was painful to speak my truth, because saying no made me feel like a selfish loser. But you know what helped me turn things around? I learned how to cultivate a vocabulary that allowed me to opt out, still like myself, and still be liked.
We all desire to be liked by others, and there's nothing wrong with that—as long as it doesn't cause you to compromise what's really important to you.
The good news is you can learn how to say no in a lighthearted, respectful way before you're asked to commit to anything! This way the next time you're tempted to people please, you'll go a different route, saving you from resentment or burnout.
Here's what has worked for me and some of my friends.
1. Acknowledge the person and the request.
It's not always easy to reach out and ask someone something. It requires courage. Acknowledge that courage and let the person know you appreciate them asking/inviting/thinking of you, etc. It's as simple as saying, "I appreciate you thinking of me."
2. Offer a clear refusal.
No hemming and hawing, no telling them "maybe" or "I'll think about it."
Be clear that the answer is no. You'll be tempted to make a long dissertation as to why or start apologizing profusely. Don't. Just say no.
"I appreciate you thinking of me, but I'm going to have to decline."
3. If you must, offer an explanation.
I realize it's challenging to say no and offer no explanation. Granted, you don't have to explain why your answer is no, but both you and the person may feel better if you do. Resist the urge to make up excuses or lie. The point here is to learn how to speak your truth.
Here are a few explanations that work well:
"Girl, I'm so exhausted I can barely think straight. For my own sanity, I can't take on one more thing."
"I've made a commitment to myself and my family that I wouldn't take anything else on for a while."
"I am certain I am not the right person to do this for you."
"I have this rule about lending money. I never loan money to friends or family."
4. Offer a referral.
You've acknowledged their request. You've let them know your answer is no (with or without an explanation). Now, if you do happen to know someone else (or a book, business, website, etc.) who can help them, give them a referral. Someone else may have the time to help them.
"Hey, I know a great [web design guy, lawn service company, book, spiritual guru, etc.] that may be exactly what you need. Check it out!"
5. Wish them the best.
End on a positive note, closing with some encouragement and wishing them the best. "Again, I appreciate you thinking of me. I'm rooting for you and sending you positive vibes for your project!"
Saying no isn't personal, so if you can keep your response light, respectful, and friendly, chances are the person will be able to feel that energy and not take the decline personally.
Saying no doesn't have to make you feel like a selfish or mean person when you take time to learn respectful ways to decline. And practice makes perfect. It helped me to write out responses ahead of time and memorize them. Then, I was more confident in speaking my truth and resisting the urge to blurt out "Yes!" immediately.
Here's one response I use often:
"Hey there! Thank you so much for the invitation to your gathering. I appreciate you thinking of me. To be honest, my free time is extremely limited this week so I'm going to decline. Perhaps we can plan a lunch date sometime this month. I'd love to catch up. Sending you big love, my friend!"
It’s simple, honest, and I choose to speak my truth.
What about you? Do you have a tough time saying no? If so, work on creating your own responses. Be that role model for others who struggle. After all, when we speak and live our truth, the world becomes happier and a whole lot less resentful. And that's pretty sweet.
Dominica is an author, self-love coach, and speaker dedicated to helping women navigate through depression, anxiety, and codependency. She's the author of Recycle Your Pain: It Has a Purpose, a road map to help others journey out of darkness, break free from painful memories, and heal at a deeper level. When she's not tapping computer keys, she's hiking, performing spoken word poetry, and enjoying family time. You can learn more here.