How to Say NO Without Feeling Guilty, Mean, or Selfish

Finding the balance between self-care and helping others

Sarah Cy

Have you ever felt like a doormat?

Someone asks you for something — a boss, a friend, a spouse, and even though you want to refuse, you…can’t?

And so you do what they ask, acquiesce to their demands, back off…and end up kicking yourself later when things turn sour.

Many of us have trouble saying No.

Society has taught us to be compliant — we have to be, in order to keep our jobs and positions, to be accepted, to be liked.

Or so we think.

People who say “no” too often are sometimes labeled uncooperative, unlikable, selfish. And perhaps some of them are. This article is not for those people.

Nor is it for those with healthy boundaries who know when to say no, and when to say yes, and aren’t troubled by their decisions.

But if you are one of those people who have trouble saying no to things you know you really need to refuse, if you feel overwhelmed by demands and like you are drowning in unavoidable responsibilities, keep reading.

Saying NO to Others

“You can be a good person with a kind heart and still say no.” — Lori Deschene

I used to think that saying “no” to others was always selfish.

It irked me to read those self-help books and articles by writers who seemed to be telling people to “reject others and take care of yourself.”

That sounded terrible to me. If we all had that kind of attitude, I thought, the many needy people in this world would never be cared for.

We can’t just be nice to and take care of the people who “deserve” it, because a lot of the most helpless, most annoying, most troubled, and most undeserving people are the ones who need help the most.

And sometimes those needy people are us.

So even if I wanted to behave like that, something in me screamed against the idea:

“Saying no to other people is wrong! It’s irresponsible and unkind and selfish.”

But as I grew up I realized that this was all just a misunderstanding.

If you have trouble saying no, remember this: Sometimes saying no to others is not hurtful, but actually helpful — not just for you, but for them.

  • The parent who says no to a child who wants to eat cookies before dinner is not doing it because they dislike their child, but because they know what is actually good for their child, and cookies are not it.
  • The friend who says no to binge-drinking with another friend is not rejecting that friend, but setting a healthy example that his friend will hopefully admire and live up to.
  • The employee who says no to the boss who is trying to saddle her with extra work is teaching the boss how to treat not only her — but all employees — better.
  • The girl who says no to a pushy boyfriend is saving herself and him from doing things they both will regret in the future.

What matters is not that you say “no,” but

  • WHY you say no
  • WHEN you say no
  • and HOW you say no

WHY you say no

“Sometimes ‘No’ is the kindest word.” — Vironika Tugaleva

If you say no to someone else’s request purely for selfish reasons, then yeah, you’re being selfish.

Even if that person’s request was made in a selfish spirit, that does not automatically give you the right to respond in kind. You being selfish back does not make the situation better.

If fulfilling the request truly will benefit them in some way and is something you can do without hurting yourself or others, it might be wise not to say “no” right away.

For instance: When I developed an anxiety disorder, my mom sat and listened to me for hours as I poured out my pain. Sometimes I would keep her up past midnight, talking through everything that came to mind. She would be dozing off and I’d still be trying to work through the knots in my head.

Was that selfish of me?

Yes.

Could my mother have said, “No, I can’t talk to you right now, I need to sleep”?

Yes.

But she didn’t.

Because she knew that that was what I needed at that moment, and she was willing to carry me through it.

A lot of people I trusted had dropped me like a hot potato when I first hinted that something was wrong with me.

But my mom covered the hurt of their rejection by going above and beyond the call of duty to prove to me, through her actions, that no matter what, I was loved — that I mattered.

Later, though, as I got stronger, my mom would tell me: “I can’t talk too long tonight because I have to get up early tomorrow for [some reason], and you need to get your sleep too.”

In that case, she was saying no to late-night chat-sessions because it was good for her, and good for me, to get the sleep we both needed.

I understood, and did not blame her or feel bad when she said “no,” because I knew her reasons were legitimate and not given out of selfishness.

WHEN you say no

“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.” — Ecclesiastes 3:1

Sometimes a “no” can be more of a “not right now.” Or sometimes a “no” must be delayed.

Not Right Now: Maybe you are busy doing something else of higher importance, or the timing is not right, so you must refuse the request — but only temporarily.

In that case, telling the asker your reason may help him/her understand and be patient.

Delayed “No”: Or perhaps you do need to refuse the request, but you shouldn’t do it right away…


Depending on the situation, saying no to someone can be a little bit like breaking bad news about a death.

In 2006, Charles Roberts killed six Amish schoolgirls and himself, leaving behind grief and devastation — and a widow with three fatherless children.

Not long after, his family suffered another blow when their beloved dog died.

In her memoir, One Light Still Shines (affiliate link), Marie Roberts Monville relates how she found their dog Dale one night not long after her husband’s death. Dale had been horribly injured by a car, and there was nothing they could do for him but put him down.

The next morning, her children came downstairs for breakfast, but Marie did not choose to tell them about the loss of their pet at that time. It was simply too much.

Such news would have been difficult under any circumstances, but so close to their father’s death, making the children face another loss right away was just cruel. So Marie waited for the right moment to tell them the truth.

That morning, after the kids left for school, a friend came over unexpectedly with a gift: three stuffed puppies and a basket of cookies.

The timing could not have been more perfect.

When Marie’s children returned from school, their mother was waiting with the bad news — but also a basket of stuffed puppies and cookies to offer comfort alongside the sadness.


When you say no to someone, especially if it is an important request, it can be painful — for them and for you. Perhaps not as painful as news of a death, but still pretty painful.

Maybe the answer HAS to be “no,” but this particular moment is not the best time to say so.

You may need to delay your “no” for a bit — just like Marie did not break her bad news to the kids until after they had come home from school and she was prepared to offer comfort in the form of stuffed toys and cookies to help her soften the blow.

Timing can be an important part of saying no.

Choose the wrong time, and you exacerbate the pain of rejection. Choose the right time, and you can significantly lessen the potential pain and hurt.

Some NOs must be stated immediately and unequivocally. Others require a touch of wisdom and good timing.

It’s up to you to decide when each type is most appropriate in your situation.

HOW you say no

“Tone is the hardest part of saying no.” — Jonathan Price

Addicts, by definition, have a hard time dealing with substances. And sometimes their family members don’t know what to do about that.

Some people, unwilling to see their loved ones suffer through withdrawal, help enable the addicts.

Others, sick and tired of watching their loved one destroy themselves, try to give them an ultimatum.

Both strategies are rotten.

When someone tries to enlist your help in destroying themselves, of course you should say no. But be mindful how you say it.

Some parents of rebellious children threaten to disown them in a (horribly misguided) attempt to keep them in line.

This does not work.

Even if disowning threats succeed in outwardly keeping the child well-behaved, the resulting broken trust and insecurity will damage them and the relationship.

But other parents find ways to discipline their kids and refuse their outrageous requests without damaging the relationship or provoking more rebellion.

Of course, people make their own choices, and no matter how kind and sensitive you are, you may not always be able to soften hard hearts.

But remember this piece of wise advice from a guy who faced extreme rejection everywhere he went:

If it is possible, AS FAR AS IT DEPENDS ON YOU, live at peace with everyone. — Paul, Romans 12:18 (emphasis added)

There are many ways you can say “no” to any request, in any situation. Why not pick the one most likely to mitigate pain and encourage trust?


We know that refusing others can be painful, so we must learn to say “no” in a way that makes it most likely to be accepted.

  • Learn to refuse a request without being deliberately hurtful.
  • Learn to say “no” while respecting the other person’s feelings.
  • Learn to say, “I’m sorry I have to say no, and I know it hurts, and I will do anything to help make that hurt better — except for [this thing], because you and I both know that [this thing] is not good for you.”

And if the asker is rude, pushy, or disrespectful, just adjust your style to be more firm. You do have a right to say no when you know it is the best answer, so don’t let anyone manipulate or bully you out of it.

The most important person to say NO to

“Love yourself enough to set boundaries.” — Anna Taylor

Let’s face it, at times, we all want things we KNOW are bad for us.

We watch too much TV, eat too much junk, procrastinate on important tasks, hang out with people who are bad for us…all because we don’t know how to say “no” to ourselves.

We need to learn to say NO to ourselves.

In fact, I think that is the point that those “love yourself first” self-help writers and speakers are trying to make:

The message is not “indulge yourself,” but “LOVE yourself.”

There’s a difference.

Loving yourself well does not mean being selfish, nor does it mean being a doormat.

It does not mean ignoring everyone and soaking in a bubble bath and eating chocolates all day.

It does not mean always letting you have your own way.

Loving yourself means doing what is actually good for you.

It means delayed gratification. It means saying no to those immature, petulant, childish desires that we all have. It means choosing what is best for you in the long term.

But we often struggle with saying NO to ourselves.

In fact, our inability to say no to ourselves is the reason why we are unable to say no to others.

We are too self-protective of our egos, and we can’t stand other people’s disappointment and hurt because it makes us feel bad.

We don’t want others to say NO to us, because we don’t know how to say NO to ourselves. We’ve never learned how to handle NO in a healthy manner.

So we say yes to other people’s requests when we know we shouldn’t.

When you learn how to love yourself — not by indulging yourself, but by saying no to yourself (to your unhealthy desires), you will know how to say no to others in a healthy manner as well.

When to say yes

“Our yes has no meaning if we never say no.” — Henry Cloud

Saying yes and saying no — to yourself or to others — are opposite sides of the same coin.

In fact, the point of saying NO to some things is so that you can say YES to better things.

You only have so much time and resources in this world. Whenever we say yes to something, we are saying no to something else.

So instead of focusing on what to say no to, it would be more helpful to focus on what you are saying YES to:

  • When you say NO to a child who wants to eat dessert before dinner, you are saying YES to helping your child develop healthy habits that will serve him well for years to come.
  • When you say NO to a friend who is tempting you to go binge-drinking or try drugs, you are saying YES to sobriety, a clear mind, and your physical and mental health.
  • When you say NO to helping an addict access their drug of choice, you are saying YES to preserving that person’s life.
  • When you say NO to unreasonable requests by your boss, you are saying YES to a healthier work culture and protecting your coworkers from similar requests.
  • When you say NO to your desire to binge-watch Netflix now instead of working on something more productive, you are saying YES to future accomplishment and peace of mind.

When you keep in mind the bigger picture and the ultimate goal, you won’t need to feel any guilt for saying no — because you know that “no” is necessary to get the bigger YES.

You’ll also be less likely to be rude, mean, or inconsiderate when you say no to others because you realize that they don’t see the bigger picture yet, and it’s your job to help them.

“If something is not a ‘hell, YEAH!’, then it’s a ‘no!’” — James Altucher

When you learn to say YES to the good stuff by saying NO to all the other stuff, you will develop clarity in your life and compassion for others.

So what are you waiting for?

Used at the right time with the right attitude, NO can be your biggest asset — as long as you are clear and committed to your YESes.

Commit to your YESes and you will never have to fear saying NO.

Commit to your YESes, and you will be able to boldly say NO with confidence instead of guilt.

Commit to your YESes, and you will find that you can use NO to increase joy, peace, and health in your life and in the lives of those around you.

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Sarah Cy

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Sarah Cy

Daughter, writer, perpetual learner. Become a brilliant writer! https://tinyurl.com/brilliantwriterchecklist

The Mission

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org