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Give yourself the gift of learning to say 'no'

15 December 2020 Blog
Mental health
Research from the University of California shows that the more a person has difficulty saying no, the more likely they will experience, stress, burnout and even depression.


Those statistics are just referring to 'people pleasers', and not necessarily people already suffering from anxiety.

With the festive season upon us, demands for our time naturally increase. Expectations are high at this time of year around attending social functions, hosting events, sending Christmas cards, baking Christmas treats and going to end of year concerts or functions, to name a few. When you take into account that you might not actually want to partake in some of these activities, why is it so hard for you to say no?

“We’re taught from a very young age that saying no is rude and you’re conditioned to think you’re a bad person in the process,” explains David Young, psychologist from St John of God’s Pinelodge Clinic – a mental health facility that provides support and promotes wellbeing and recovery.

“If you think about your childhood – saying no to your parents, teachers, grandparents, aunts or uncles was not a wise or a widely accepted thing to do. You’d probably get into trouble for it. But saying yes? That was far more polite and a likeable thing to say,” David said.

"Even though we are the adults now and are mature enough to make our own choices, we still find ourselves holding onto our childhood beliefs that saying no will result in feeling disliked, bad mannered, unkind or selfish, and the person asking will likely be angry, upset or annoyed at our decision.

“It’s a social exchange that has the potential to make you feel humiliated, guilty or ashamed which may result in you ending up alone, rejected or abandoned.

“It’s unlikely to be true, but our brains make up crazy scenarios in order to protect us and in turn. we can end up being overprotective.”

Social anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses for people to experience next to depression and substance use disorder, so many people could indeed save their sanity from simply learning the art of saying no.

David suggests that changing your perspective on saying no to a friend, family member or colleague can help.

“If you start looking at saying no as an opportunity to free up your time so you can say yes more often to the things that are really important to you, then you can change the negative dialogue in your head, making it easier and less guilt-inducing to decline a request in the future.”

The first time you say no it will be uncomfortable, no doubt about it. Allow yourself to feel that way because it helps to flex your “'no' muscle” and soon, you’ll become used to the feeling of not knowing how the person you are saying no to will react. When nothing terrible happens, you’ll likely have the courage to do it again.

David said that it’s a good idea to practice saying no in advance.

“Choose some easy, low-risk situations to improve your ‘no’ game,” David said.

“If saying no to someone trying to sell you something on the street seems too daunting to begin with, choose something less daunting – it’s all about learning to become comfortable with it.”

Other suggestions include:

  • Being direct. Don’t say, “I don’t think I can”, or “I’m not certain”. These phrases sound limp and often your 'no' will sound like a 'yes'.
  • Don’t apologise or give all sorts of reasons.
  • Be polite. Say “I’m grateful you thought of me …”, or “That’s so nice of you to ask me but I have too much on my plate right now”.
  • Don’t lie. It will make you feel guilty – a feeling you’re already trying to avoid.
  • Don’t say, “I’ll think about it”, as it will just prolong the situation and make you feel even more stressed. However, if you would genuinely like some more time to think about your answer – sleep on it, but be sure to set a time limit in which you’ll agree to respond to their request.
  • Offer up an alternative that you can say yes to or help with. For example, “I can’t come to dinner on Friday but I’d love to catch up another time” or “I don’t have time to make something to bring to your Christmas party, is there another way I can contribute?”

The most important thing to remember is that no one else will protect your time or your needs as vigilantly as you can and you don’t want to look back at opportunities you wished you had said “yes” to because you didn’t say “no” to others you’ve already committed to. Once you learn the art of saying no, people will respect your willingness to practice self-care and prioritisation.

If, however, you find that no matter how hard you try, you just can’t say no, or that your social anxiety is so crippling that you can’t attend events you’d like to go to, it might be time to reach out for some extra support. St John of God Pinelodge Clinic has anxiety programs that are designed to help you better understand and manage your symptoms, so you can learn to enjoy life and progress to a more positive state-of-mind. For more information call 03 8793 9444 or email info.pinelodgeclinic@sjog.org.au.

At St John of God Health Care we use a variety of trusted experts and caregivers to create our blog posts.