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The Gentle Art of Saying ‘No’

by Harinder Ghatora Mental Wellbeing Balanced Living Personal Empowerment Emotional Wellbeing

Emotional overwhelm is something that brings many people to my practice.

For them life has simply got out of control. There are too many people making too many demands … too much to do in too little time … too many expectations and not enough energy to deal with them all.

The result is anxiety which, if left unchecked, leads to mental, emotional and physical breakdown.

We all experience overwhelming feelings.

I’m guessing you know what that’s like.

I certainly do.

In fact, I used to get overwhelmed a lot.

Nowadays, though, it’s less the feeling of overwhelm that I deal with than the fear of overwhelm.

I find myself regularly evaluating my work/life balance, reviewing my schedule and assessing my commitments, all in the hope that I won’t experience that dreaded feeling of not being able to cope.

If you’re prone to feeling overwhelmed then did you know that the key to instantly regaining control and power lies in one simple word – probably one of the first you ever learnt?

That word is ‘no’.

Take a moment to think how you relate to it?

Are you comfortable using it?

Or, like many people, are you prone to saying ‘yes’ a little too often?

It seems that many of us have trouble saying ‘no’.

If you think back, it wasn’t a problem when you were two years old.

Most toddlers take great pride in saying ‘no’ to virtually everything. That is the age at which we realise that we have a degree of personal power. And that we can use this power to control and manipulate those around us.

Sadly, we’re not permitted to stay in this phase for too long.

In direct response to our assertions of personal power, parents, families, schools, and society as a whole get busy with the process of social control and conditioning.

We’re systematically stripped of our power so that we can be moulded into compliant, submissive little human beings.

The more we do what we’re told, the more we’re praised.

But this isn’t a good thing when it comes to our health.

Research from the University of California in San Francisco shows that the more difficulty a person has in saying ‘no’, the more likely s/he is to experience stress, burnout, and even depression.

Saying ‘no’ is indeed a major challenge for a lot of people. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

It’s something we can all learn and get better at with practice.

If this is something you struggle with, or you’re just learning the art of saying ‘no’, here are some points to bear in mind:

  1. Remember that no amount of doing things for other people will ever make you feel good about yourself if you have a poor sense of self-worth.

  2. You cannot realistically deliver on everything other people ask you to do. It will just make you exhausted and sick.

  3. Your time and energy are just as important as the next person’s. Saying ‘no’ is ultimately about self-respect.

  4. Despite the messages you internalised as a young child, it’s impossible to please everyone all the time. Quit trying.

  5. If people are upset by you saying ‘no’ then the responsibility for their emotional response lies with them, not you. The guilt trip is a commonly used manipulation tactic that people use to try and get you to do what they want. Recognise the mind games that are being played and rise above them.

  6. Whenever you say ‘yes’ to something you don’t want to do you’re saying ‘no’ to something you do want to do. Eventually, this attitude will leave you living someone else’s life, not your own.

  7. Saying ‘yes’ all the time is physically, mentally and emotionally harmful. In time it will lead to stress and burnout.

  8. When you say ‘yes’ all the time other people lose respect for you. It may feel like you’re disappointing others by saying ‘no’, but if you constantly say ‘yes’ people will take advantage of you because they’ll see you as a soft touch.

  9. Accept deep down that it really is okay to say ‘no’. You’re not a bad person. It’s not like you’ve committed a crime. You have every right to refuse to do something you don’t want to do. So there’s no need to feel guilty.

  10. If saying ‘no’ is new to you, practice in situations where there’s less at stake to begin with. You’ll soon realise that your fears about how others will react seem huge in your mind, but they’re often not borne out by reality.

  11. Offer an alternative. Even though you can’t be of help you can offer up suggestions. You could recommend another person who may be able to assist, or suggest a way to get the task in hand done. This lets the other party know that you’re not just saying ’no’ to be obstructive and that you’re respectful of their needs and wishes.

  12. Be prepared to be firm and repeat yourself. If you say ‘no’ and the other party pushes back, the best thing you can do is repeat yourself. In some cases, you may have to repeat yourself more than once, as people get used to the new, more assertive you.

  13. Saying ‘no’ doesn’t have to be done harshly. You can do it kindly and graciously. For example, you can soften it with “I wish I could but …” or “I really can’t because …”. You don’t have to disrespect another person in order to respect yourself.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to self-respect.

The ‘others’ in your life will have done a great job of training you to say ‘yes’ to everything that’s expected of you.

They will also have done a wonderful job of convincing you that saying ‘yes’ all the time makes you a good person.

But think about it for a moment.

Have they gone to all this trouble to train you to be a certain way because it’s good for you?

That’s doubtful.

It’s because it’s good for them.

Saying ‘no’ is ultimately an act of deep self-love and self-care. As the 19th Century American comedian Josh Billings said:

“Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.”


  • Amarpreet:

    27 Mar 2017 21:23:34

    It’s amazing and surprising as I am facing a similar problem at work.
    Where I have a personality to say yes all the time

    And how this can affect you.
    Thank you for sharing I found it so powerful I am going to try and work on this for myself
    Thanks Harinder the information is helpful

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