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Clinical Social Worker/Therapist

The difficulty many people have saying “NO” has been the subject of numerous books, articles, lectures and issues people bring into therapy.

What makes this one word so hard to say without anger, guilt or resentment, and so challenging to stick to?

Why do so many people feel so guilty when they say no that they then have to justify, explain or defend their response?  

When you stop and think about what this one simple word means - and all the emotional energy it carries with it - it’s no wonder so many people struggle with this message.

Do you feel burdened whenever you think about saying “no” to anyone? Do these feelings stop you from saying “no“? Do you feel guilty, or feel that you’ve done something wrong if you finally say it? Can you only say no if you are angry, hurt or upset?

Saying No - Setting a Boundary to Protect Your Needs and Feelings

Saying “no” means you’re setting a limit. You’re setting a boundary, and stating that your needs and feelings matter.  What makes this so difficult for so many people? 

  • Were you taught that other people’s needs and feelings had to be considered first?  When you were growing up, did you hear that doing for someone else, even if it inconvenienced you, was better than saying “no” and possibly hurting the other person’s feelings?  Were you given a message in your life that you were wrong, mean or inconsiderate if you said “no”?
  • Thinking back on that message, how do you feel?--- Where in your body does that message of “you’re wrong, mean or inconsiderate”  sit?--- Where do you tense up?--- 

Just allow yourself to be aware of your feelings and the messages that you learned.  Take a deep breath and allow your awareness to give you clarity of your past and the lessons that you learned and have carried forward in your life. When we become aware of our old beliefs and habits, we are then in a position to choose if and how we want to change.

Make a Decision to Respect Your Personal Needs and Feelings

I am not advocating never doing for other people due to the possible threat of inconveniencing yourself.  I am stating that it is important that you also learn to consider your needs and feelings as well.  Take a deep breath and say out loud:  “My needs and feelings are as important to me as your needs and feelings are to you.”--- Let this message resonate within you for a moment before reading on.

This is NOT about selfishness or being inconsiderate; rather, it is about acknowledging that while people have a right to ask for whatever it is they want, you also have a right to decide if giving them what they want works for you.

I am asking you to STOP!  BREATHE!  FOCUS! - and ask yourself what will happen to you and your day if you stop and take care of someone else’s needs.  Just allow yourself to consciously decide what you need or want to do at that point, rather than automatically just saying “yes“, and then feeling angry, resentful, stressed, or even worse, martyred because you said yes. 

Being a martyr really does not make you a better person; usually you end up feeling used and abused and very under-appreciated.  This is not for anyone’s greater good!

As you process the situation, please ask yourself “What is my desired outcome?” Be honest with yourself about what your needs and feelings really are.  If you find yourself in a position where you want or need to say no, then it really is okay to just say no, clearly and compassionately.  “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you out this time” (then stop and take a deep breath) 

This is a clear and simple answer.  Do your best not to offer an “excuse” because that will trigger your defensiveness, and leave an opening for the other person to “argue” with your excuse causing you only more heartache and stress.   Excuses communicate defensiveness; that somehow without a legitimate reason for saying no, you’re not allowed to do so.  Who’s to say what’s legitimate for you?

Both Men and Women Struggle with 'No' but for Different Reasons

Men and women both have difficulty saying no, but for different reasons. 


Socially, women are taught to be the care-takers, which only further heightens their already innate nurturing styles.  Many young women have been  told that if they say no, the other person won’t like them or will be mad at them.  This message only serves to increase the difficulty of saying no. 

Another message many females get that stops them from saying “no” and setting clear and respectful boundaries is that the other person will be upset and somehow not be able to cope with the disappointment, or that if she says no, she’ll be seen as incapable or selfish.  


Men who have a hard time saying no, often feel like they have to rescue, be the hero, (especially for women) or be the good guy who always comes through in a pinch, etc. 

The bottom line is that all these messages severely undermine one’s self-esteem and belief that “who I am is enough” and “my needs and feelings matter, too”, because the minute you start only taking care of someone else’s needs, you stop taking care of your own.

Choose to Take Care of Yourself

Boundaries are about respecting and taking care of your own needs and feelings while balancing other people‘s as well.  In many situations, someone will be disappointed, hurt, upset, frustrated, etc.  However, you have to realize that it just doesn’t always have to be you.

Learning and practicing to say “no“, to set limits and have respectful boundaries, is about how you feel about yourself, and how you choose to take care of yourself.  It is most essential that you’re willing to, first and foremost, communicate to yourself that you matter, and this in turn will help you to communicate to those around you that you are treating yourself with all the respect that you deserve.

Remember that by treating yourself respectfully, you inherently give permission to those around you to do the same.  After all, if you don’t treat yourself with the love and respect you deserve, how will anyone else know to do that?   When you pay attention to your own feelings and needs with respect and compassion, you are NOT disrespecting anyone else’s feelings, you are simply treating yourself as an equal, and you deserve no less.

Write down the following message and repeat it frequently throughout each day. Start with a slow deep breath and end with a deep breath to really let the affirmation sink in (know that it takes practice, patience and perseverance to change a habit, but always remember that you are worth it!):

“I lovingly and respectfully consider my needs and feelings, and when I say “no”, I do so with compassion and respect for myself and others.”

About the author Loren Gelberg-Goff:
I am Loren Gelberg-Goff, LCSW, in private practice for the past 25 years in River Edge, NJ. Through individual sessions, my workshops and, audio CD’s, I provide a unique style of psychotherapy that helps people become authentically empowered so that they are able to live their lives to their fullest potential, knowing they really are and always have been well within. I do individual and marriage counseling, hypnotherapy and neurofeedback, as well as workshops and seminars on relationships, communication, anger, forgiveness and stress management, etc. I have written a variety of articles that have been published on a number of Self-esteem sites as well as through E-zine Articles.com. I have audio CD’s available to enhance self-esteem, promote inner healing, and to aid in stress management and relaxation. I also hosted a weekly Internet radio program “Loving the Life You’re In” which focused on issues relating to self-esteem, self-empowerment & self-respect. The shows are currently available on my website (www.wellfromwithin.com/lovingthelifeyou_rein.html) My book, which I co-authored with Dr. Carmel-Ann Mania, Being Well Within: From Distressed to De-Stressed brings you realistic, helpful strategies, tools, support and guidance to eliminate the negative effects of stress in your body, mind and life. You can get the book directly from my website, beingwellwithin.com or through Barnes and Nobel, Amazon..etc.
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Page last updated Apr 17, 2015

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