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How To Say "NO!" When You Feel So Guilty

I take good care of myself. My family, friends and clients know this about me. I would not be surprised if behind closed doors I’ve been described as selfish. I am actually all right with that; I own it. I worked at taking care of myself in this way as a matter of mental health necessity. I say "no" for many reasons, including that it helps me be a better person. What a paradox! To be a better person, I have learned to be ok with acting selfishly.

Let me explain: Giving is wonderful and necessary. But when we give, and give, it can become too much. We can become depleted, resentful, and even depressed from containing our anger.

Staying healthy depends on sometimes saying no.

We all know that feeling of conflict. A friend or neighbor asks a favor. The boss asks you to stay late. Your partner wants to see a movie you have no desire to see. We are all asked to do things we don’t feel up to, things we don't want to do, and even things that go against our values. We feel that terrible pull between not wanting to upset someone and not wanting to take on more.

To learn how to say no I had to overcome three challenges:

  • Learning the best way to say it

  • Tolerating the guilt

  • Soothing my shame

Learning the best way to say no:

Never underestimate the power of language and tone of voice. When I say no, particularly to someone I care about, I make it a point to communicate in a caring tone that I understand their need. “I know you hate going to parties by yourself. I truly get that. And, I am just so tired that I really need to rest tonight.” Here’s another example: “Wow, I really hear that you need someone to walk your dog while you’re away. Unfortunately I can’t help you out this time. I hope you find someone soon.” Or “I do understand that you want me to call you more. I totally get why you would want that. A part of me wishes I would. I just hate the phone - I can’t call more than I do.”

In each one of these examples, I convey my understanding. I try not to sound defensive or angry or to blame them for asking. I use "I" statements, conveying that I own that I cannot do what they are asking. People are entitled to their feelings upon hearing no - including anger, sadness, and disappointment. Learning to accept other people's emotions is very important.

Tolerating the guilt: a choice between guilt and resentment

When I was training to become a psychoanalyst, a supervisor told me it was better for a patient to resent me than for me to resent my patient. Good advice. Resentment is toxic to relationships. Most of the time there is no clear right or wrong when it comes to saying no. The best compass is our internal one. We know when we have reached a limit. My limit is the point at which saying yes would make me feel anxious and resentful of the other person. So, whenever I am in conflict, I remind myself I’d rather be calm, not resentful, and actively work on tolerating my guilt.

Guilt is an inhibitory emotion on the Change Triangle, an emotional health tool I use and teach. Guilt is there to keep us positively connected to others. So when we choose to do something that upsets someone else, we can anticipate feeling guilty. It's only natural. But, we don't have to act on that guilt by saying yes to alleviate it. We can instead bare it.

To help tolerate my guilt, I remind myself of the healthy reasons I said no. I remember I can use words to express my empathy and conflict. I remember I can make it up to the person at another time when I have more ability to give. I distract myself if the guilt is so painful by exercising, working on a project, etc. My goal is to tolerate the guilt; wait it out. Guilt, like all feelings, is temporary and soon fades. The more you practice setting limits by saying no, the less guilty you will feel over time. Your brain will learn that if you say no, nothing bad will happen. (And, if someone hurts or abandons you for setting healthy limits, you might reconsider if that relationship is good for you.)

Soothing my shame: what makes a good person?

No one is perfect, although many people I work with strive to be just that. But perfect for who? Who’s the person - in our minds - we are trying to be perfect for? The answer is often an internalized parent or a harsh part of our Selves. When we don't meet or own standards for giving, it brings up shame.

When suffering shame for taking care of yourself, try this brief and gentle experiential exercise. Listen to the soothing audio recording:

Find a nice quiet place to sit. Close your eyes. Feel your feet on the floor. Take 5 deep breaths as you feel yourself slowing down. Now, see if you can make a little space between you and the part of you that feels shame. Offer the shamed part some compassion like you would a friend who was suffering. Notice what happens inside. Repeat this every time the shame starts to take over. Just the process of sitting, grounding your feet on the floor, breathing, making space between you and your suffering, and offering compassion, helps the brain in many ways.

Saying no is hard, and sometimes we need support and encouragement to do it. But the process of learning where your boundaries begin is worth it. You feel better and your relationships become more about respecting each other, and less about what you do. Knowing you are loved for who you are: flaws, limits and all, brings happiness and freedom. In fact, my friends, family and colleagues say they are never afraid to ask me for things because they know if I don’t want to do something I’ll just say no. And, of course very often I am able and happy to say YES!

I would not be surprised if behind closed doors I’ve been described as selfish. I also wouldn’t be surprised if I have been described as kind, smart, balanced, caring, considerate, boundaried, and loving. When you set limits by saying no, remember to hold all parts of you in mind, not just the “selfish” part that is taking good care of yourself.

A+ just for trying!


Boundary related articles and books:

To learn more about guilt and how to work with it and other emotions, pick up a copy of It's Not Always Depression (Random House & Penguin UK, 2018)

Read my OpEd in Oprah. I needed to set better boundaries to prevent getting divorced again and repeating past mistakes:

Read “Rupture and Repair Part 1” to understand more about how the way we were parented affects our feelings about boundaries:

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