How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty

Eve was known for her warm smile, her unwavering generosity, and her knack for always saying yes. She’d volunteer for local charity events, stay late at work to help a colleague, and agree to host a last-minute dinner party. Eve was always the one you could count on.

Drawing of a pink monster with big white teeth that holds up a pink banner with the word NO

For Eve, her tendency to help everybody at her own expense was part of her daily life. She couldn’t turn down requests for her time or help, no matter how overwhelmed she felt. Her calendar was an intricate web of commitments, with barely a moment to catch her breath.

Over time, Eve’s inability to refuse others began to take its toll on her mental health. She felt exhausted, stressed, and perpetually anxious. And still, she kept ‘yes’-ing every request she’d get. After all, isn’t that what nice people are supposed to do?

If you’re like Eve and saying no leaves you feeling guilty, keep reading. You’re not alone, but the solution is actually closer than you think.

Why we say Yes more often than we should

There are many reasons why we say yes when we don’t really feel like it. Most of them are cultural. Saying ‘yes’ is attributed to generosity and ‘being nice’ We want others to like us, and in order for them to like us, we want to please them. But there’s more to it – we often feel like saying ‘no’ requires a good reason. Shouldn’t we help others when we can? Isn’t that what makes us ‘good’?

If that’s your way of thinking: you’re not wrong. We are a social species and we thrive on connection, including helping others (whether it’s practical or emotional help). The problem arises when we stop taking into account that helping others costs us. This is especially hard when the cost for helping is invisible: sure, we don’t feel too bad saying ‘no’ to a babysitting request when we have tickets for a concert, but it’s a lot harder to say no when our alternative is just chilling on the couch with snacks and a bad murder mystery.

The truth is that even when the cost is invisible, it’s often there. Helping others takes time, and often energy. When we pretend this isn’t true, it’s easy to end up exhausted.

The sad thing is that when we overstep our own energy levels to the point where people know we’ll always say yes, we help set high expectations. Result: whenever someone needs help, you’ll be the first they ask. And so, a cycle begins.

You always say ‘yes’ (even when you don’t)

The truth is that whenever we get a request, we always say yes. We also always say no. We say yes to the thing we’re going to do, and we say no to all of the things we’re not going to do. Sure, the ‘no’ is often implicit, but it’s still there.

Keeping this in mind, might help you reframe how you treat requests: it’s not a matter of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The question is: what are you saying ‘yes’ to?

Of course, to be able to decide what you’re saying ‘yes’ to, you’ll need to be able to compare all of your alternatives. Saying ‘Yes’ to your neighbour or boss feels natural when you think otherwise you’re just doing ‘nothing’. But doing nothing is often how we take care of ourselves and our own mental health. That’s not even taking into account all of the other things we could be doing in this timeframe.

What do you want?

One way to make sure you’re saying ‘yes’ to all of the right things is by getting clear on what you want your life to look like. And yes, we’re talking about your career, but also your relationship, your family and friends, your hobbies, your health, your financial situation. When you’re clear on what those look like, it becomes way easier to say ‘no’. Because all you have to remember is that you’re not actually saying no. You’re saying ‘yes’ to things you care about more.

And sometimes, this looks like caring about your relationship or the time you have with your children, more than the profit your boss is making.

And sometimes, this looks like keeping your job over attending that party.

And sometimes, this looks like saying yes to some time to unwind, instead of helping your neighbor do their taxes.

And it’s all good.

Painting the picture

Getting clear on what you want can be quite tricky. That’s why we recommend you make a vision board and define the different topics in your life: from personal growth to adventure and finance. It will help you get clarity, and will make you remember your vision every time you look at your vision board. And… it can be a lot of fun.

Ready to make yours and start saying ‘yes’ to the things you actually want to say ‘yes’ to?
Check out our Guide for vision boarding!