How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty In 5 Simple Steps

Do you ever feel guilty about turning down invitations or requests? If so, here are five things that have helped me learn how to say no with kindness and grace. 

For much of my life, I was a “yes” person. I wanted to be a good friend and a good employee, and I thought that this meant always going above and beyond. 

I worked late. I took on extra projects. I went to dinners that I couldn’t afford—I did anything and everything that was asked of me. I never said no because I wanted to be THAT girl, the one who could do it all with a smile on my face. 

But here’s the thing: that smile was fake. Underneath the surface, I was stressed and completely overwhelmed. Something had to change. 

And then I realised that, in the words of Claudia Black, “Saying no can be the ultimate self-care.” 

Some people fear that NO communicates a lack of love. I’d argue that it’s the opposite – by choosing no, you’re saying a loving YES to many good things: simple living, meaningful conversations, quality products and more free time for people and things that light you up. 

“No” opens a beautiful fertile space for new ideas and relationships to grow. 

So here is my little guide on how to say no with grace, not guilt.

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Why It’s Important To Say No

I noticed that many people—myself included—often think of themselves as invincible. But nature has created us with unlimited potential and limited capacity.

As Denise R. Green, author of the book Work-Life Brilliance notices, we’re all constrained by time. We only have 24 hours in a day, a third of which we need for sleep. We’re also bound by our bodies that require to be fed, rested and taken care of. 

If we took in everything that life throws at us, all the information, requests, invitations and ideas, we’d be constantly overwhelmed. Our brains would hit the fight-or-flight mode all the time. Declining the influx of these commitments is a fundamental way to stay sane. 

My life changed when I realised that my most precious resources: time and energy, are not limitless. If I want to have more of the things that matter most to me, I must be careful not to waste these precious resources on the non-essential. Because stretching oneself thin is neither healthy nor pleasant. 

It’s like decorating your house. You don’t want to put everything you’ve ever owned or had been gifted out there. You’d rather consciously choose the things that bring you joy, and distribute them around your living space to create balance

So let’s shift the perspective from ‘no’ to ‘yes’. You can start reclaiming your time and prioritise your mental wellbeing when you tune into what it is that you’d really like to do.

5 Gentle Steps to Start Saying No Without Feeling Guilty

STEP #1 CONDUCT A SELF-AUDIT

I feel that if anyone wants to get serious about saying no, first, they have to create awareness around all the time, energy and money they’ve spent agreeing to things they could have easily declined. 

  • How many coffees have you had with people you didn’t want to hang out with?
  • How many job offers have you accepted even though you felt they were below your expectations? 
  • How many parties have you sat through silently praying for them to be over? 
  • How much money have you spent agreeing to some fluffy offers because you didn’t want to be confrontational? 

Realising that your resources are not limitless is a starting point for decluttering your schedule

Go through your calendar and your to-do list. How do your commitments reflect your priorities in life? Is there anything you could take off that list? Is there any uncomfortable “no, thank you” email you’ve been postponing? Take a note of anything that’s out of alignment. 

Now, you can start practising saying no more often.

STEP #2 PAUSE BEFORE YOU SPEAK

Since saying yes seems like the easiest, more natural and pleasant answer, often, we agree to do things for people, believing we can somehow get out of things later. (I’m embarrassed to admit that this is something I used to do all the time!) 

But I’ve since learned that this is an excellent exercise in becoming more assertive. How does it work? Simply, take a deep breath before you’re about to say no. 

By pausing for a moment, you’re allowing your mind to attune to this new habit. Imagine that your “no” is showing kindness to another person. It’s much better to decline than to accept and fail to deliver. 

As Mahatma Gandhi beautifully said: “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”

A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble. -Mahatma Gandhi

STEP #3 PRACTISE SAYING NO (WITH YOURSELF)

In addition to saying no to other people, you can also practise saying no and setting firm boundaries with your own self-imposed duties and expectations. 

Look at your calendar and your to-do list. Then think about all the things you think you should be doing. Does it all feel essential? 

If so, I encourage you to challenge this belief. You can even test it by doing a small experiment: Choose one small thing from your to-do list … and then don’t do it. 

Pay attention to what happens. What are the consequences? Was it really as important as you thought? How did you feel when you skipped the task?

I know this might feel scary but guess what? If you’re busy and overscheduled, then you’re probably not getting everything done anyway. 

Remember, we all have limits. Something has to give—so why not take control and make an intentional choice? YOU decide what’s least important instead of rolling the dice.

STEP #4 START SMALL

For me, saying no to family members or friends used to be the hardest part. I never considered myself a people pleaser, but the idea of making someone feel bad or disappointed in me freaked me out. 

But then I started to live more intentionally, and I just wanted to practise what I preach. It didn’t feel aligned to keep stuck in my old patterns. 

So I decided to take small steps and started to say no to those close to my heart. I always did it with kindness and honesty, and tried to be concise. 

If someone invited me out and I knew I couldn’t afford it, I’d say: “Sorry, but this month I really can’t afford it”. 

When I was on a deadline, and one of my family members wanted to have a long phone chat, I’d tell them kindly (and truthfully!): “I really wish I could, but I need to have this finished today”. 

Nobody ever got angry with me for saying no with grace and love. On the contrary, many people thanked me for my honesty. 

If you don’t like to be put in the spotlight, ask people to text or email you their request so you can get back to them after checking your schedule. Writing ‘no’ is much easier than saying it out loud.

STEP #5 TRUST YOUR GUT

In his book, The Power of No, author James Altucher says bluntly: “When you say yes to something you don’t want to do, here is the result: you hate what you are doing, you resent the person who asked you, and you hurt yourself.” 

Your body is the compass. You can learn to recognise what saying yes and no feel like for you—you’ll sense it in your gut or heart space. Uncomfortable decisions often leave us paralysed with fear, suffering from stomach aches, headaches or tense muscles. These are all signals of a full-body NO.

For example, when you receive an invitation and know that you’re really busy on that day, analyse: “How does my body feel when I think of doing this?” Or similar, when someone asks you a favour, check your body’s first, instinctual reaction. 

By trusting our gut more often, we can shift the blame and feel less guilty about saying no.

Take Back Your Time + Live True To Yourself

Learning how to say no with grace is one of the many ways I’ve simplified my life. If you’d like to learn more, here are a few additional blog posts that will hopefully, inspire you to take back your time and live true to yourself. 

What are your tips for saying no to friends and loved ones? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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