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Mental Health

Learn How to Confidently Say “No” Using These 6 Expert Tips


More than half of women feel guilty for standing up for their own needs. Some research even suggests that women’s brains are more likely to signal empathy than men’s brains — and when you’re more nurturing, saying “no” to someone else can feel very harsh. But it’s important that you learn how to tell someone no confidently — and kindly — without feeling bad about it. Here, experts share six feel-good ways to put yourself on the top of your priority list.

Honor your budget

The impulse to say yes affects all women, says Sarah Knight, author of F*ck No!: How to Stop Saying Yes When You Can’t, You Shouldn’t, or You Just Don’t Want To. “I’m a bold person, constantly in motion — my past ‘yes’ tendencies were not because I’m shy but because we’re conditioned to please,” Knight explains. To outsmart this pressure, “look at your time and energy as your budget, just like your bank account. This makes it easier to reconsider how you spend your most precious resources. Then reflect on whether saying yes will serve you. It’s a simple question that helps you feel more in control of your decisions.”

Stop feeling guilty

“Studies show one of the biggest shame triggers is a threat to our ideal identity,” reveals Julie de Azevedo Hanks, PhD, licensed therapist and author of The Assertiveness Guide for Women. “For example, we say to ourselves, ‘If I’m a helpful person, then I have to say yes all the time.’ But this is too simplistic. Instead, tell yourself, ‘More often than not, I’m helpful. More often than not, I’m kind.’ This way, your identity doesn’t hinge on saying yes in every situation, because you matter just as much as anyone else.”

Make a simple list

We’ve all agreed to something we wish we hadn’t because it’s hard to say no in the moment. The solution to “yes, regret”: Make a list of a few things you’ve agreed to in the past that made you feel taken advantage of afterward, advises body language and communication expert Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma. “Now, when you feel put on the spot, you won’t have to think — you’ll be able to say to yourself, ‘X and Y are on my no list, so I won’t do that.’ Jotting them down like this helps your responses become almost automatic.”

Take a step back

After you’ve gotten comfortable with the idea of saying no, it’s time to put it into practice, urges Knight. “Taking a pause is the best way to start,” she says. “I was a compulsive responder until I learned to say, ‘I have to get back to you.’” She started her “no” practice over email to get into the habit, then graduated to doing it in-person. “You’ll soon realize that the sky doesn’t fall when you say no — people respect you when you’re intentional with your time.”

Try a “no & shift”

Instead of saying “I can’t do X,” which tends to erode our confidence, consider phrases like, “That won’t be possible” or “X isn’t an option,” says Knight. “You might say, ‘A breakfast meeting doesn’t work, but how about lunch on Friday?’” This is the “no & shift” strategy, she explains, where you say what you’re not willing to do, so you can pivot to what you can do.

Outsmart social “musts”

“So many of my clients tell me social obligations are the hardest things to say no to,” reveals Wood. That’s why it’s so helpful to focus on how we want to spend our time. “This way, if someone asks you to attend a party, you can say something like, ‘You always throw the best parties, but I’m devoting more time to my grandkids right now, and I can’t make it.’” Knight puts it this way: “Ask yourself if doing something will hurt you more than it helps someone else.” It’s not being selfish, it’s simply a form of self-care.

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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