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 a 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, etc.), 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?
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 ahead of time. 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 organisation, 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 food and keeping my house reasonably clean.
I want to volunteer, and I know the organisation 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 £50/ 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 £50?
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.
Of course each set of situations is different: maybe your criteria will include questions like, “does it give me life?” Or “does it help me pay the bills?” Or even, “will this help me grow in the spiritual life?” The key is to establish criteria that help you respect your pre-determined life priorities and finite resources.
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 recognise 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.