How to Say “No” with Compassion for Yourself and Others

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It’s already 6 p.m., and I’m still working on that project I took on for a friend.

Dirty dishes line the counter, the groceries are yet to be done, and the kids are fighting downstairs—they must be hungry. But dinner may not be ready for a while.

I’m not in the midst of a creative outpouring that can account for this recklessness. No, I’m burdened by the compulsion to say yes, because I don’t have the strength to say no.

How often have you given in to this urge? And how often have you suffered the guilt and anger that ensue when house and family go neglected, or sleep and exercise get replaced by the endless expectations of people who are good at spotting “yea”-sayers like yourself?

I often wonder why I find it so difficult to say no. The logical and verbal me says it’s because I’m a kind person, and genuinely can’t stand to see a person in need. And while there may be some truth to that, there’s a more silent and unsure part of me that points to a deeper truth.

My reason for helping is not always selfless. It’s actually quite selfish—for beneath the hushed suppression of what I’m truly thinking and feeling, there’s the deafening fear of rejection. And no amount of dirty dishes or fighting kids can match the dreaded prospect of being left alone.

Of course, that’s a fear that has roots both in our universal wiring and in individual early experiences. Which means that despite its apparent truth, there’s little likelihood that the request placed on us in the here and now is a judgment call on our worthiness of love and acceptance.

Easier said than done, of course. When the need for approval is high, saying yes when we want to say no is an impulsive reaction that haunts us only when we struggle to meet our own needs and responsibilities.

But there’s hope for your time-starved self. This six-step process can be a guide the next time you feel you have to be helpful to prove your worth.

Connect to Your Inner World

Our bodily sensations have a lot to tell us—if only we’d listen. When a request is made of you or a personal boundary has been violated, focus on your feelings and the sensations that come with them. Are there memories or images that flood you? Is there a part of your body that feels tight or hurts? What’s going through your mind? What do you want to say?

Engage in Mental Rehearsal

Practice the exact words you’ll say. How do they sound to you? Do they reflect your sincere intentions of wanting the best for yourself and the other person? Trust that you’re trying to protect what needs shielding. Perhaps it’s your respect, your space, or your time. Or perhaps it’s the other person’s integrity—by not committing to something you can’t do justice to.

Surround Yourself with Love

Since your natural urge to say yes or accept what you shouldn’t is based on a fear of rejection, it’s important to bring to mind moments where you’ve felt loved and appreciated. Soak in those feelings, so they give you the strength to stand your ground. Whom will you think of? What memory will you bring to mind? If you have time, you may even discuss the current situation with a close friend who wishes the best for you.

Begin with the Positive

Before you begin to speak, bring to mind something positive about your relationship with the person who’s made the request of you or trespassed your personal boundary. Starting the conversation with that helps open up the other person to your point of view, rather than put them on the defense. You may want to begin with something like, “I treasure our friendship and appreciate the good times we’ve spent helping each other. But…”

Be Direct and Specific

If you trust and value your intentions for saying no, being direct shouldn’t be difficult. It’s when we jump straight to this without doing our internal work that we get embroiled in lengthy explanations and justifications, and often end up giving in. Of course, the other person may still insist, but keep coming back to your reason for saying no.

Practice Compassion

Be open and empathetic to what the other person needs. Don’t get hung up on a single ideal outcome. Perhaps there are other ways you can help them while still protecting your own needs. Can you put them in touch with someone else? Can you help them once you’ve taken care of your own duties? If they refuse to understand, or worse, if they get aggressive, feel free to disengage. After all, compassion is fragile if it’s not grounded in self-compassion too.

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, professor Jonathan Haidt says that we’re part ape and part bee—a paradox of selfish and selfless. Finding happiness is about balancing both, which includes the ability to set clear and compassionate boundaries. Otherwise, we become an ape dressed as a bee—a disturbing visual that can certainly help us the next time we’re struggling to say no.

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