How Do I Say No & Not Feel Guilty About It?

“Be brave! Do not be led by what others think or say.” Saint John Bosco

Is saying “no” difficult for you? I’ve always struggled with being a people pleaser, so learning to say no has been a hard-won life lesson for me. It’s much easier to say no when you know your yes. But this past year I have been learning to say no without feeling guilty about it, and it has been life-changing.

Guilt can be useful when it alerts us to the fact that we have done something wrong: we want a child to feel guilty when he has punched his brother, for example. But people pleasers struggle with a kind of false guilt that can accompany every instance of saying no, even when saying no is the right thing to do.

The difficulty is knowing when saying no is the right thing to do, especially when we are saying no to good things.

Setting moral issues aside (of course we should say no to lying and stealing), saying no can be challenging. We don’t want to let people down. We want to be helpful. We want to do good in the world.

But what what about when it all becomes too much? When we say yes just because we can’t figure out how to say no?

Planning Ahead

The trick that I’ve found involves setting my criteria ahead of time. What this means is that I come up with a list of criteria that every request for my time or energy needs to pass, in order for me to say yes. It’s a test that I make up in advance. The request then has to pass or fail, yielding a simple, easy, and guiltless, yes or no.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I am in the position of getting constant requests to volunteer with a particular organization, like a church or school or local community group. I may have full-time work and other obligations, like caring for a family member, in addition to my basic needs like grocery shopping and cooking and keeping my house reasonably clean.

I want to volunteer, and I know the organization needs help, but I can’t say yes to every request without losing my mind or handing off some of my other responsibilities.

First, I determine everything that is a priority and the time it takes for me to do those things: caring for family, home, going to work, growing in the spiritual life, engaging in a restful hobby, etc. That allows me to see how much extra time, energy, and money I actually have.

Second, based on those priorities, I decide how much of that extra time, energy, and money I can give. Maybe in this case, I have two hours per week and a bit of energy on the weekends, as well as an extra $100/month.

Third, I use those to establish my criteria, which in this case might be: Can this volunteering be done on the weekends? Will it take more than two hours? Will they ask me for more than $100?

If the request meets all those criteria, I can say yes. If not, I can say no, freely and easily, because I have already determined the boundaries of what I can give.

Each situation is different. Maybe your criteria will include questions like, “does it give me life?” Or “does it help me pay the bills?” Or “will this help me grow in my spiritual life?” The key is to establish criteria that help you respect your pre-determined life priorities and finite resources.

No Guilt

Establishing criteria ahead of time prevents decision fatigue. I don’t slip into saying yes because I’m on the spot and can’t immediately think of a good reason to say no. I’ve already decided what is important, and what is possible.

Establishing criteria ahead of time prevents decision paralysis. I don’t say yes out of guilt because I have avoided giving an answer for too long. I am clear about my priorities and my capabilities.

Establishing criteria ahead of time prevents guilt. I don’t feel bad about about saying no, because I recognize all the things I am already saying yes to, and I am realistic about the finite nature of my time, energy, and other resources.

People will not say no for you. They will ask you, invite you, offer you endless opportunities. They will not enforce your boundaries: that’s your job.

Establish your criteria, then feel free to say no.

Kerri Christopher is a life consultant. She helps individuals learn to discern well, discover their priorities, and make plans to move forward. From “what am I doing with my life?” to “why is my closet always a mess?,” she loves helping people sift through the tough questions by integrating the wisdom and truths of the Christian life with the best practices of human “self-help.” Kerri has both an MA and STL in theology and has taught at universities in the US and UK. With her British husband, she lives in London, where she enjoys discovering cozy pubs and beautiful architecture. You can find her online at Clarity Life Consulting.