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How to Say No and Not Feel Bad about It

Many of us struggle to say no to others, especially people we love. People pleasers on the other hand, struggle to say no to anyone. A people pleaser is someone that prioritizes other people's happiness over their own and often at their expense. People pleasing inevitably leads to saying yes when you really mean no.

Why people have a hard time saying no:

  • Don’t want to appear rude

  • Don’t want to hurt feelings

  • Want to be liked by or please the other person

How to Say No

Saying no is hard, but it’s easier when you’re prepared. When a situation occurs in which you need (or WANT) to say no, keep these tips in mind:

  • Say no in that moment. Don’t kick it down the road with statements like “Let me get back to you” or something similar. Think of it like ripping off a Band-Aid. By saying no immediately, you get through the discomfort faster. There are even multiple health benefits associated with saying no in the moment, as described in the next section.

  • No is a complete sentence. People always feel the need to justify WHY they are saying no, but you do NOT have to explain yourself. No is a complete sentence that stands alone. Rid yourself of “No, because…” and simplify an already difficult task. You either can or can’t. Keep it short. If anything, let them know when you ARE available. People don’t need (or even want) a lengthy explanation riddled with details about how you analyze your obligations.

  • Reframe the concept of “no” and change how you think about it. If you change the way you think about it, you can change your behavior. The aim of this article is to hopefully help you accomplish that.

  • Say NO by saying YES to yourself. This helps you set boundaries and tells people you have respect for yourself and your time. More on that in a minute.

What People Really Want

Deep down, people want people around them that they can trust. Don’t you? They want people who can commit their time and energy into their relationship, and who will do so willingly. People who say no are those people because when they say yes, they actually mean it. They don’t commit to things that they really can’t do, and they avoid making promises that they can’t keep. Sounds good, doesn’t it? By saying no when you know that you can’t fully commit to something, people will actually like you more because:

  • You don’t waste their time making promises that you can’t keep

  • They can trust that when you do commit to doing something, you will follow through

  • You say what you mean (and mean what you say)

Why Saying Yes When You Want to Say No is Ineffective

Conversely, people who say yes but mean no are hoping that you will read their facial expressions and body language and understand that although they are saying yes, deep down, they want to say no, but don’t have the courage to do so (for various reasons). In the long run, people will like you less because:

  • Hurtful and Rude – Nothing’s ruder than canceling last minute, not showing up, showing up late, or participating half-heartedly. When you say yes to something but don’t follow through (or do so half-heartedly), it’s a lot more hurtful than just saying no. Telling someone that you don’t want to do something, or don’t have time to do something, helps them to make plans accordingly. The sooner you honestly tell them no, the more time it allows them to find someone else who can say yes and mean it. That is the courteous thing to do.

  • You’ll Be Seen As Unreliable And Untrustworthy – People who say yes to everyone and everything are generally seen as untrustworthy because although they try to commit their time and energy into their relationships, they do so inconsistently. Their desire to please everyone leads to making unrealistic decisions and commitments. If you’re always saying yes to people who ask something from you, then eventually you’re going to over-commit (e.g., agreeing to do two different things at the same time). Although you may think that you will be able to “somehow” complete both tasks, you won’t. You’ll either end up skipping one task altogether, which will definitely annoy one person, or doing both tasks half-heartedly, which will annoy both people. People who say yes are seen as distrustful because when they say yes, they don’t always mean it. They commit to things that they really can’t do, and they make promises that they can’t keep.

  • Encourages people to take from you – You may think that by saying, yes, people may like you more, but this is not true. If they like you, they like you, whether or not you complete a task that they want you to do. If they only like you when you do something for them, then it is not you that they like, but what you do for them. More on that in a minute.

What if They Get Upset?

Firstly, if someone hears something that they don’t want to hear, they have the right to get upset. It’s a natural emotion, just like happiness and sadness. No one is happy all of the time, nor is anyone upset all of the time. As such, ensuring that someone is happy all of the time is outside the scope of your capabilities. People are stronger than you give them credit for. If you could look into a crystal ball and determine exactly how someone would react to a situation, you’d be a wizard. And you’re not. You have no way to determine whether or not someone will get upset because you said no to them. However, you can put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself if you would rather hear someone say no and mean it, or someone who says yes but doesn’t?

Secondly, if your concern is that saying no to someone might upset them, then the problem may be more yours than theirs. Why? There is a difference between liking you as a person and liking what you can offer. A person can like YOU and not care about what you can do for them. Conversely, they can like what you can do for them and not like you (that’s what I call a “toxic person” and saying no to them is actually beneficial to your mental health). Which brings me to my next point…

Health Benefits of Saying No:

  • Reduce Anxiety – When a situation occurs in which you need to say no, doing so in that moment rather than postponing it, ensures that you will not have to deal with the anxiety of having to say no. When you say no in the moment, you don’t give yourself time to create a scenario in which you have to decipher what saying no means. You don’t give yourself the opportunity to dream up a world of negative possibilities in which, ultimately, you end up alone with no friends or family. A possibility that, in fact, is more likely to happen to someone who says yes to everyone.

  • Reduce Resentment – Additionally, when you say no, you don’t have to “stuff anything down,” which builds anger, frustration, and resentment. These negative feelings: a) take a toll on your body, and b) take a toll on your relationship. When you say no in the moment, you don’t allow yourself to build up years of resentment towards someone who, unfortunately, was unable to read your body language and determine that, although you said yes, you meant no. You don’t stoke that internal fire that eventually explodes into a full-on tirade ripe with unnecessary insults (and objects) flying at the “real” victim who took your words at face value and mistakenly believed that when you said something, you meant it.

  • Rid Your Life of “Takers” and Toxic Relationships – As I mentioned earlier, if someone likes you because they actually like YOU as a person, saying no to them is not going to change that. The problem occurs, however, if they don’t really like you, but they like what you can do for them. In this case, yes, saying no could mean the end of a relationship. But that’s a GOOD THING. Why? Because they never liked you in the first place. They liked what you could do for them. A person who likes you will respect your decision, whether they like the decision or not.

  • Set Healthy Boundaries For Yourself – If it’s true that people give the kind of love they want to receive, then why do we end up giving to people who take from us? We allow and encourage others to take from us because we never set boundaries. Regardless of why we tell ourselves, it all comes down to how we feel about ourselves. And that can be hard to face. Do you value yourself? Do you value your time, your space? When you start saying NO to others and YES to yourself, you are saying, “I respect my time and needs just as much as yours.” You are saying “my time and space are important too.” In turn, you show the other people in your life that “if you respect me, you respect my answer, even if you don't like it.” I've never lost a friend because I didn't do one thing that they wanted me to do. Or because I said no to a request. What I have gained, instead, is respect from people and respect for myself.

The Down (and Up) Side of saying No

This doesn’t mean that every encounter will be great. If I ask you to do something for me and you say no, will I be happy with your answer? Probably not. Will I be happy with you in that moment? Probably not. But the truth is, it’s not going to end our relationship. In fact, it might just give me a better understanding of who you are as a person, show me your likes and dislikes, and educate me on what you’re open to or not. This is because we teach the people around us how to treat us by showing them how we will allow them to treat us. This helps them to understand what they can expect from us and what they shouldn't. It will help them to build a healthy relationship with us centered on honesty, which in turn continually fosters both trust and respect.

When you value your time and yourself, saying no becomes much easier. What’s more, people are not used to seeing this kind of confidence and it’s something they are attracted to. They wonder, “How do you get that? I want that.” This is how. You change the way you think about it, and other people will follow.


DeMonta Whiting is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California who specializes in helping people develop assertive communication skills to improve their self-esteem, create healthy boundaries, and develop healthy and happy relationships.


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