How to Get Better at Saying "No"

By Heather Matzkowitz, LMSW

Many people find it very difficult to say the word “no.” I have often heard my clients say that they are afraid to say no, especially when their friends and family are asking something of them. So why do we finding saying "no" so difficult? 

Many of us have a fear of conflict and we don't want people to be angry or upset with us—it doesn’t feel good. It's part of being a human being to feel a desire of belonging and acceptance, and this goes hand in hand with not wanting to disappoint or hurt someone else. Often times clients say that they have to say yes to their friends birthday dinner, work happy hour, or Saturday brunch. They are not saying yes because they truly want to go, but because they don’t want to let others down. We are busy people and sometimes it can cause more stress than enjoyment by saying yes to things that are difficult to fit into our schedule. 

Saying no can feel selfish—a feeling that many of us don't like to have. This fear of being portrayed by others as selfish causes many of us to take on too many commitments, which leaves us feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Many of us like to live in a fantasy that we can please everyone and do everything, but it is your right as a person to pick and choose what you say yes to.  And when we aren't using the word “no” enough, we often feel stressed, resentful, overwhelmed, or anxious. 

Here are 4 reasons you shouldn't feel guilty about saying "no."

  1. “No” sets boundaries: Saying no is an important word for setting any type of boundary, and that is our right and our job. 
  2. “No” means you know your limits: Saying no is an acceptance of our limitations. 
  3. “No” prevents burnout: Saying no is crucial for prioritizing.
  4. “No” helps you identify your needs: Saying no can help us recognize what we truly value. 

So how can you begin to learn and feel comfortable with saying no? Here are some tips:

Practice saying no. 

This is an essential word! Say it as often as you can, just to hear the word come out of your mouth. Say it out loud when you are alone. Practice phrases with the word "no" in them, such as “No, I can’t do that” or “No, I don’t want to go there.” Try it for simple things first, then build your way up to harder situations. 

Know the implications of saying yes. 

Whenever someone asks something of you, think twice before saying yes or no. Ask yourself:  What is going to happen if I say yes to this? What is there to gain? What am I going to lose by saying yes? Do I really have to say yes? 

Make yourself less accessible.

Don’t respond immediately to every single request. Doing so makes it seem that you’re always around and willing. Instead take a longer time to respond, which will make others value your time more. 

Write everything down first.

Often times the reason we are so afraid to say no is because we are unsure of how to say it. Writing out everything that is on your mind beforehand can be helpful. Write out what you want to say to the person. Once you finish writing it, review it! 

Keep it simple. 

There is no need to explain to someone why you are saying no. You have every right to do what you want. You can stick to a short explanation of why you are saying no. 

Heather Matzkowitz is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support for noticing with creating and maintaining boundaries, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.