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6 Times It’s Really OK to Say No

Is it selfish — or self-care? Here’s how to set boundaries without fear of being perceived as that other b-word.

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Harkiran Kalsi
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We’ve all been there — I know I have. Someone asks something of me, whether for a loan or a ride to the airport at an inconvenient time, and I want to say no, but I don’t always feel free to do so. I worry that my refusal will breed bitterness or resentment. I fear disappointing a loved one or damaging a valued relationship. I feel guilty when I technically could say yes — it’s just not my preference. Somehow, what I want doesn’t feel like it holds enough weight. For these reasons and more, saying no can be difficult. So, many of us avoid doing it and that’s unhealthy, say relationship experts.

Much of our inability to say no comes from our misconceptions of what saying no really means. According to Nakeya Fields, a licensed clinical social worker and director of the Feel Well Empowerment Center in Altadena, California, saying no isn’t about shutting a door within a relationship, but about opening a window on our needs and preferences. “Boundaries teach other people how to treat you.”

Sisters explored common scenarios in which saying no can be difficult and asked experts for their strategies.

1. When you’re asked to loan money
Whether you have the money to give or not isn’t important. Nor is that information the potential borrower is entitled to. Be a sympathetic ear. Then, keep your response brief. Fields offers this example: “I know you’re upset because you wanted me to fix that problem for you. I can’t fix it, but I love you. I know you love me, so let’s problem-solve together.”

2. When you’re asked to show up for a social engagement
According to Fields, “If someone wants your time, they will still want your time when you have the ability to be present for them. Have faith in that.” She suggests, “Thank you for wanting to spend time with me. I want to spend time with you too! I can’t be available then, but let’s compare calendars until we find something that works.” However, if this is someone less central to your life try, “I appreciate your wanting to get together, especially with how precious a commodity time can be. Please feel free to check in with me again in a few weeks when my schedule may be less hectic. Have a great day!” If the person extending the invitation is someone you have no desire to see, leave it at a simple no.

3. When your partner wants sex and you don’t
There are a lot of things that can decrease a person’s desire for sex: depression, side effects from medications, fatigue, stress, insecurity, disagreements, emotions, childbirth, and more. Some are short-lived, and others can last for a while. Jamila M. Dawson, a licensed marriage and family therapist and a sex therapist, advises against agreeing to sex when you don’t want to. But she also recommends being flexible when defining sex — it isn’t just penetrative sex. In that way, while you’re making clear that you’d like to press pause on intercourse, you don’t need to suspend intimacy or connection. Cuddling, trading massages, holding hands or watching a movie together are ways you can maintain closeness when you’re not in the mood for lovemaking. Just be sure to convey your preference in a way that doesn’t sound like a judgment or rejection. If timing or tiredness is the issue, for instance, you can still say, “I love you,” and ask for a rain check. If your dry spell starts to look like a drought, find ways to address it here.

4. When you’re asked to do more than you can reasonably handle at work
According to Shirley Johnson, a licensed marriage and family therapist, being overworked, exhausted and over-scheduled has become so normalized that many people find it difficult to say no, especially at work. Women find it particularly difficult because society tells young girls to gain their value from being nice and liked. However, just because everyone else is living beyond their means in terms of time and energy, that doesn’t mean you can’t set healthy boundaries. It will feel difficult at first, but Johnson likens it to exercise. “It takes consistency and practice, and sometimes it will tire you out.” Fields suggests, “Thank you for trusting me with this project/assignment. Can you support me with a review of my responsibilities and an updated job description? Will any of my current duties be delegated out so that I can give this the time and attention it requires?” Remember, you are advocating for yourself.

5. After you’ve already said yes
This is a tricky one since you probably don’t want to disappoint the other party or seem unreliable or flaky. Perhaps your family has always counted on your hosting Thanksgiving dinner, but you don’t want to this year. Maybe you agreed to do a favor for a friend, but your schedule, willingness or motivation level has changed. According to Fields, “We always have the option to change our mind for whatever reason and to communicate our reasons why.” First of all, it’s OK to disappoint someone. Their being sad or mad doesn’t make you bad. Again, clear and honest communication is key: “Hey! I’m so sorry, but there was an unexpected change in my schedule, and I can no longer commit to this. I hope I can do something else for you. Let’s talk soon!”

6. When you don’t have a good reason for saying no
Remember, just your no is sufficient. All our experts agree that an explanation isn’t owed or necessary. Sometimes we think it will lessen the blow, but your reasons shouldn’t make your no more or less acceptable. Anyone who respects you should take your no at face value. Simply say, “No. I’m sorry.”

Remember, saying no to someone else is really saying yes to yourself. It’s self-care, not selfish. You’ll have more time and energy for your priorities.