How to Say No Without Shame or Guilt

In a culture of “yes”, saying no without guilt, shame, or fear is extremely difficult.


How many times have you said “yes” when you really wanted to say “no” this week? This month? This year?

A lot, right?

It’s just so hard to say no, especially in a culture that expects you to say “yes” at every turn.

You have to say yes to attending your friend’s out-of-state wedding, to going out to drinks with your colleagues, to taking on an extra project at work, to going home for the holidays, to eating what your mother-in-law has cooked, to putting everyone else’s needs ahead of your own.

But do you really have to say yes to all of these things?

Obviously, you don’t! The difficult part of this is figuring out how to say no when you really want to say no without being riddled with guilt, shame, embarrassment, or fear. The goal of this post is to help you do just that. (And, remember, you’re not alone — as a recovering people-pleaser, I’ve been there as well!)

The Fear of Saying No

As with any deep-rooted fear, the fear of saying no typically originates in a childhood experience, memory, or circumstance. What did you learn about what it means to say “yes” and what it means to say “no” growing up?

It’s important to examine the lessons, both implicit and explicit, you learned about these words and their meanings growing up. Did you learn that you had to say yes to keep the peace? To avoid conflict? To make sure you were loved and cared for?

Did you learn that saying no is a sign of selfishness or unwillingness to help others? Do you equate saying no with other people abandoning you, or with being perceived as less worthy of love?

Very often, the compulsion to say yes to any demand, request, or invitation comes from a deep place influenced and shaped by your early childhood experiences.

As Chantalle Blikman says, “Sadly, we hold onto our childhood beliefs and we continue to associate no with being dislikeable, bad mannered, unkind, or selfish. We worry that if we say no, we will feel humiliated, guilty, or ashamed, and will end up being alone, rejected, or abandoned.” (Tiny Buddha)

Certainly, avoiding being “alone, rejected, or abandoned” is a worthwhile endeavor. But it can’t come at the cost of sacrificing yourself, putting yourself last, or compulsively saying yes when your gut and your heart are telling you to say no.

The point is, you must figure out what lies beneath your fear of saying no. How is this fear perpetuated by your beliefs and values? How can you start associating saying no with something much more positive and empowering?

For example, if your belief is that saying no is selfish, unkind, and standoffish — which therefore makes you selfish and unkind, triggering shame and self-criticism — you could transform this into a new belief:

Saying no is actually selfless and honest, because it avoids wasting anyone else’s time or leading anyone else on.

Sarah Cy reminds us that “sometimes saying no to others is not hurtful, but actually helpful — not just for you, but for them.” (Mission.org)

After all, what’s more honest — saying “I will think about this” when you have no intention of actually thinking about whatever the person has asked you to do, or saying “my schedule is full right now, so I can’t take this on”?

This avoids wasting both the time you would spend agonizing over how to say no (after saying you will think about it) and the time the other person would spend waiting for you to finally make up your mind… and potentially having to reach out to someone else for help with the same thing.

Owning Your Yes and Your No

In addition to the fear of saying no, which can be paralyzing, there’s also the problem of not being able to identify your true “yes” and your true “no.”

In our culture, we’re often led to believe that our reaction to certain questions or requests should always be yes. Try to picture a Disney movie where the girl finally meets the prince, the prince gets down on one knee, pulls out a diamond ring, and asks the girl to marry him. The girl says “no, but thanks.” This is typically not how the story goes.

As women, we constantly receive messages about what we’re supposed to be saying yes to. Sometimes it’s marriage, motherhood, taking care of the home/kids, cooking, cleaning, and other stereotypical behaviors. Currently, women are more expected to say yes to a career, to delaying marriage, to delaying having kids (or not having kids at all), and to contributing to society rather than staying home.

The cultural moment and social landscape often dictate what our “yeses” and “nos” should be. So it’s hard to tell when you actually want to say yes to something versus when you actually want to say no.

It’s important to distinguish an authentic “yes” that comes from deep within your soul versus an inauthentic “yes” that comes from fear, shame, guilt, or cultural conditioning.

You can begin to distinguish these two types of “yes” by checking in with your body when you’re making a decision. Your gut and intuition will never lead you astray. If you feel kind of weird, awkward, confused, uncomfortable, or hesitant to say yes to something — stop and honor that awareness, which is often communicated through the body: chills, goosebumps, a pit in your stomach, a dry throat, fidgeting, and other forms of physical discomfort.

On the other hand, a true yes will often feel exciting, liberating, and totally aligned with who you really are and what you really want to do. A true yes will make you feel eager and energized, rather than drained or uncomfortable.

External & Internal Pressures to Say Yes

So what are some of the external pressures you face when you want to say no, but feel you have to say yes?

  • Cultural values: you have to be/act “selfless” and put everyone ahead of yourself
  • Social messages: it looks bad, selfish, lazy, unhelpful, or unkind to say no
  • Family pressures: your family expects you to say yes to certain things, and they make you feel guilty if you say no
  • Peer pressure: your friends/coworkers expect you to say to certain things, and they make you feel guilty if you say no

Internal pressures mostly include a wide range of fears:

  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Fear of being perceived in a negative way (shame researcher Brene Brown calls these “unwanted identities,” such as the fear of being perceived as selfish or self-absorbed)
  • Fear of missing out
  • Fear of being left behind
  • Fear of not being loved
  • Fear of being passed up for future opportunities
  • Fear of not being invited or asked to do something again
  • Fear of offending the other person
  • Fear of disappointing the other person
  • Perfectionism (drives you to say yes to everything and overcommit)
  • People-pleasing tendencies

All of these powerful internal and external pressures drive you to say yes in situations where it would actually be more authentic and healthier for you to say no.

New Beliefs to Help You Say No Without Guilt

Changing your mindset and beliefs about what it means to say no is the most powerful thing you can do to release any guilt or shame about actually saying no. So here’s a list of how saying no is good, helpful, kind, respectful, and healthy — not only for yourself but for other people as well.

  1. When you say no, you show others that they can do the same. Setting this example helps other people realize that they too can say no, and that the world will not end. However, remember to walk the talk and to actually support other people if they say “no” to you. It can be harder to apply all of this wisdom when we’re on the receiving end of “no”! (Especially if we wanted to hear “yes.”) In those moments, remember that other people have the same right you do to say no, and you have to respect that.
  2. As we covered above, saying no saves everyone a bunch of precious time. It’s best to be honest and clear from the get-go than to lead people on or change your mind a million times. The next time you’re tempted to say “I’ll think about it!”, try to say “I’m already overscheduled, so I’m going to have to pass on this” instead. It will get easier over time, I promise. And remember, in the words of Jocelyn K. Glei, “When you decline misaligned opportunities with grace and firmness, you do everyone a favor.” (jkglei.com)
  3. Learning to say no means you’ll liberate yourself from having to experience negative, uncomfortable, and toxic situations. You’ll spend your time doing what you want with people you actually feel comfortable and happy around. From a spiritual perspective, this means you’ll spend more time in alignment with the things that make you feel joyful, peaceful, stable, and excited — so you’ll be raising your vibration much higher than if you were forcing yourself to waste time doing toxic things with toxic people.
  4. Saying no to what you don’t want — to all the things that aren’t aligned with or meant for you — opens the door for you to say yes to the things you do want. As Ashley Neese puts it: “the beauty is, when we say no to one thing, we say yes to something else.” (“Saying No Is a Spiritual Practice“)
  5. Ultimately, saying no when you need/want to say no protects your boundaries, your space, your energy, your time, your productivity, and your vibration. The word “selfish” means “self-ish,” or related to the self. There’s nothing wrong with caring for the self.  In fact, that’s your primary responsibility: to care for yourself. If you don’t care for yourself, you can’t authentically say yes to anyone or anything else.

The Practice of Saying No

If you’ve been stuck in a pattern of compulsively saying yes to things, it will take some time for you to be able to say no. But I invite you to start this practice right now, today (or this week!).

The next time you’re inclined to say yes automatically to something, try to take a beat and do the following:

  • Stop and breathe.
  • Check in with your body.
  • Feel how your gut feels about this situation.
  • Feel how your heart feels.
  • Connect with your inner knowing.
  • Remind yourself that you might have learned some unhelpful beliefs as a child that are still influencing you, or that you might want to reactively say yes out of fear, shame, or guilt.
  • Remind yourself that you want to break this pattern and start saying yes and no from a more authentic, empowered place.
  • Remember there’s nothing selfish about saying no.
  • Remember that you’re showing others that they too can say no.
  • Sleep on it and make a choice tomorrow — the answer might still be yes, but it might also be a clear, resounding NO.

Finally, don’t beat yourself up as you move towards owning your true yes and your true no. There will still be times where you want to say no but you’ll say yes. This is natural.

The important thing is to do your best and to begin by saying no to smaller things. Once you realize that you can say no without dying or losing everything or [insert your own catastrophic outcome here], you’ll be able to move into saying no to bigger things.

What has stopped you from saying no in the past? Leave a comment about your experiences and what has helped you finally own your “no.” I’d love to hear your story!

Wishing you peace, abundance, and courage on your journey.

With love,

Josephine 


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