Updated: Aug 1, 2019

We are often encouraged to be ‘yes people’ who say yes to every opportunity, offer or situation. However, saying yes too often can lead to us over-committing ourselves and sacrificing our time, energy and efforts for other people, whilst neglecting our own health, happiness and goals. ‘No’ is a small word, but if used effectively, can afford us huge benefits and peace of mind.

The importance of ‘no’

When we say ‘no’, we establish a boundary for ourselves, which may separate us from others, or even ourselves. When we are able to say ‘no’, we construct ourselves as independent, mature and capable individuals. Above all, ‘no’ is a mark of our personal responsibility, to ourselves and others.

We are often tempted to say ‘no’ in two separate spheres of our lives. We say ‘no’ to ourselves; to that chocolate at the till, or that second glass of wine, and ‘no’ to other people; to sewing all the children’s costumes for the school play or to the colleague who asks you for one too many favours. While we are entitled to chose how we spend our time and whom we spend our energy on, having to feel like we are letting people down is often difficult for many of us.

A recent study found that women find it more difficult to say ‘no’ than men. This is because women are often brought up to worry more about relationships and other people’s feelings. “Many of us are wired from childhood to do what is asked of us,” says counseling psychologist, Penni Cox. Whether it is in order to avoid hurting people’s feelings, appearing rude, creating conflict, out of a sense of guilt or just because we feel we can do it all, it sometimes seems to be easier to just say ‘yes’ to an unreasonable request rather than turning someone down.

“On a daily basis, all sorts of things happen in our lives. We are bombarded by requests and demands from work, friends, family or simply unexpected events that derail us from what we had wanted to achieve in our day,” says Richards Bay-based life coach, Tania Potter. Learning to say ‘no’, however, is a valuable skill. “Think of it in the same way as spending money. Currently, times are financially difficult for many people and we have to cut back on luxuries and watch what we spend. In the same way that we have to say ‘no’ to things we can't afford financially, we need to learn to say ‘no’ to things that we don't have time and energy for, or an interest in,” says Tania.

Doing things for other people is important and we undoubtedly all wish to value and respect our relationships, however anything you do for another person, takes away from your time for your own responsibilities. Not setting healthy boundaries in your life with the people around you, and instead letting other people set your schedule, may tend to leave you feeling resentful and drained. “The more we say ‘yes’ to people when we want to say ‘no’, the more disconnected we become from ourselves. This could lead to an increased sense of isolation and depression,” adds Penni.

Although our experts maintain that there are no hard and fast rules to when you should say ‘no’, we explore some guidelines to help you asses when you should decline, and how to do it firmly, but kindly.

Say ‘no’ in situations where you:

· Are saying yes, purely as an emotional response: “It is important to ask yourself what your motivation for saying ‘yes’ is,” says Tania. “When we start doing things to avoid feeling guilty or bad, we lose trust in our ability to make good decisions. When we learn to balance our emotional response (to the request), with our intelligence, we make better decisions.”

· Have to sacrifice your own self-care: “People should say ‘no’ when saying ‘yes’ will lead them to compromise their or their family's wellbeing,” says Penni. Anything you do for someone else will affect your time and energy required for other things, including your time to reflect, relax and regroup. If you have to give up your own personal me-time on a consistent basis, rather decline.

· Disagree: This is especially important when it comes to situations where doing something will be in conflict with your own values (peer pressure). If you have to ignore a value that is important to you, to bend to someone’s request, say ‘no’!

· Feel like it won’t bring you joy: Anything that drains you is not necessary. If you will not gain anything from the situation, and instead have to sacrifice feelings of happiness and peace, decline.

· Feel taken advantage of: In a relationship where you feel like you are consistently giving more than you are receiving, it may be a good idea to set some boundaries. If you cannot do this without the recipient getting upset, perhaps you are in a more controlling relationship rather than one based on love, friendship and respect.

· Will have to sacrifice your own goals: Remember that you also have your own agenda. Following everyone else’s agenda, all the time, may see you neglect your own dreams.

How to say ‘no’:

· Reference your other commitments or priorities: Decline gently, stating that you have previous engagements or other priorities. It shows that your intentions are good, but you also have other things going on.

· Reschedule: Stating that now is not a great time, but suggesting that they get back to you at a later time is a great way to hold off the request for a while, if you are too busy to help at the time. Only suggest this however, if you really mean it.

· Be firm: While you should be gentle and not confrontational, at the same time do not be overly apologetic or defensive. This gives the impression you will not change your mind when pressured.

· Referring: If you don’t feel that you could be of great help to the request, suggest a more suitable person (with their permission of course). You will still seem helpful, but you do not have to help if you do not have the time or sufficient resources.

· Suggest a lesser commitment: If you don’t have the time, or unwilling to accept, offer to do something else for the cause. For example, you cannot help collect money or items for your friend’s charity on Saturday because of a prior commitment, but you would be more than willing to donate yourself.

· Be mindful of your boundaries: The problem is that we are often not mindful as to where healthy boundaries lie, and so are not aware of compromising ourselves by saying ‘yes’ too quickly. “The first step to saying ‘no’ is to therefore identify your personal boundaries. Once you know where they lie, you will have a better idea of when to say ‘no’,” says Penni.

· Ask for a breather: If you feel uncomfortable in the moment, don’t just automatically say ‘yes’. Ask to think about it and get back to the person. It will give you the chance to assess whether you want to help out or not. Try not to give them false hope, this will leave them feeling let down if you decline.

· Unless you mean it, don’t say ‘maybe next time!’

“The key here is to believe that you are allowed to say ‘no’,” says Penni. Remember that your health, your personal responsibilities and your family are your priorities. Your happiness is just as important as the happiness of those around you, and should be valued. Practice the little, but powerful, ‘no’ to respect yourself, and those around you.

Say ‘no’ to yourself! (Sidebar)

The ‘no’ we say to ourselves, is just as important as the ‘no’ we say to other people. Without our ability to effectively self-discipline ourselves, we give in to our own unhealthy cravings and habits.

“A question worth asking yourself is, what am I saying ‘yes’ to in my life and what am I saying ‘no’ to?” advises Tania. “Are we saying ‘no’ to health, because we are saying ‘yes’ to chocolate and fast food?” Every time you are tempted to cheat on your Eating Plan, think about what you are saying ‘yes’ to, and what you are saying ‘no’ to.

Sources: Penni Cox, Tania Potter,,,,,

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