Learning to say no

List all the types of authentic me-time that work for you, and give them importance in your diary.  Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash

Many of us have learned not to talk back.  It could be a throwback to childhood, or influenced by more recent events, but sometimes we hold back from speaking out our opinions in response to what others say and do.

I am particularly prone to this, partly because of my interest in Buddhist philosophy.  There is so much in Buddhist writings that encourages us to take on others’ suffering, and to be patient and accepting.  Anger is discouraged as useless.  I agree with these exhortations, but it sometimes it leaves me wondering just where holding other people accountable for their actions fits in.


Put simply, many of us believe that, given the choice between suffering ourselves, and others suffering, we should choose to suffer ourselves.  We are taught this through little actions, like waiting for others to go through doors first; and through role models such as heros in films sacrificing their own convenience for the convenience of others.

But this way of living can become a problem if our adherence to it is indiscriminate.  For example, what if a devious person becomes aware of our tendency to put ourselves out for others?  What if they then create numerous situations where we need to rescue them, and make them feel better?  It may be, under these circumstances, that our life is in danger of becoming totally dedicated to saving that one person from all their suffering.


Even if you subscribe to a Buddhist-style caring attitude, it can be consistent to limit your suffering.  The logic goes like this: if you spend all your time helping one person, then you may limit your ability to help many others.  Therefore, sometimes, it can be OK to deny one person help, in order to leave yourself free to help others.

This way of thinking can be a comfort to those trapped in codependent relationships.  A codependent relationship is one in which you are addicted to playing a harmful or self-harmful role.  For example, Jane realises she is addicted to making everything better for John, who is addicted to drugs, shows violent behaviour, and is heavily paranoid and possessive.  Jane may understand the situation is toxic, but stays put because ‘he needs me’.  It can be helpful for Jane to explore ways in which her relationship with John is stopping her from helping many more people, trapping her at home.

The point is that it is sometimes OK to say no to those who ask you for help, if in doing so you release yourself to help other people in a better way.


There is a communication element to this.  Even if you want to say no to helping some people, and even if you believe this would free you up to be more effective in general… even if this is true, you might find it hard to communicate that wish.

In short, you might be so used to saying ‘let me help’ that the language of ‘no’ escapes you.

We all have a language of thought, words and action that we have learned over time, and in some sense become an expert in.  So, if you are a natural helper, you will have lots of immediate help-y thoughts, words and actions at your disposal.  This really disadvantages you when it comes to saying no, because you simply haven’t got the phrasebook that experts in saying no have developed.  It is one of the awful paradoxes, that those who need self-care the most, have the fewest ways to express their need.

Think about it.  Selfish people have learned to say no from the get-go.  They are experts in passing the buck to others, in making sure they avoid pain.  But not you.  You are an expert in rescuing.  Those are your words.  ‘Let me help.’  ‘Can I do that for you?’  ‘Don’t worry, I can do that.’


OK, let’s suppose that you want to develop your ability to say no to things which drag you down, in order to be more helpful to the world in general.

What kinds of things will you work on?

Here are a couple of suggestions.


Watch films, read books, listen to others.  Listen out for phrases that are creative ways to say no, to talk back and defend yourself.  If you are the kind of person who just goes quiet when they feel put upon, try gathering a collection of useful phrases to try out.  For example:

‘I can’t help you now, but I can help you later.’
‘I’d love to, but I’m already booked out.’
‘I’m going to need to move our appointment.  What alternative suits you?’

There is an infinite variety of such phrases; the main thing is that you build up your own repertoire, so that the words come naturally to you when they are needed.


Many people don’t get enough me-time because they only give it one category.  So, they have 99 other-people-focused activities and categories, and one small category called ‘me-time’ which they hope for now and again.

How about if you developed more categories of me-time, and became an expert in different ways to do what is authentic to you.  For example, in my life, some categories might be:

Poetry-writing time
Article-writing time
TV-watching time
Gardening time
Walking-in-the-woods time
Chilling-with-family time
Chilling-with-friends time

…and so on.  Then book them in your diary, or send yourself to do these activities, with the same gusto with which you help others.  This will stop your life being a whirlwind of mindless help for others, with little time for yourself.

You are, essentially, defending your own authentically-chosen activities by explicitly naming them in all their fullness.


Do you have an overwhelming feeling of frustration that you are not doing what you want to do?  If so, then it may be time to limit your suffering.  In the long run, you will be in a better position to help others, if you are well-rested and living as you believe you should.

In this way, saying no is really just saying yes to your starved urge towards self-care and authentic living.  Give it a go and see where you end up.


If in the past you were overruled by others’ wishes, then it can be hard to stand up for yourself.  Usually it will be accompanied by an overwhelming fear that you are threatening a relationship.  You have been trained to be silent about your own needs and wishes, and so you have become a boiling cauldron of quiet frustration, that only overflows when the boiling gets uncontrollable.

I am suggesting that you become a wise expert in protecting your own welfare.  In a way, I am suggesting you teach those around you what works for you.  Imagine that you are in charge of a school whose sole aim is to educate others as to what works for you.  What lessons would you offer?  What would you write on the blackboard?  Try it.  Others who care about you might be waiting to find out what works for you.  After all, they want you to be happy.



Many of us have learned not to talk back; to be quietly obedient, and look after others without getting angry.  This is commendable, but leaves us open to abuse by others, especially if they learn how helpful we are, and start making constant requests for help, or punishing us when we don’t help.

Logically, this can’t work.  We need to free ourselves from overwhelming relationships, to be useful to the world in general.

Initially, you won’t have the language to defend yourself.  But you have a good chance of self-care if you do two things.  First, develop your vocabulary of no, your ability to say no to others.  Second, get better at listing all the different types of authentic me-time that work for you, and give them importance in your diary.

Finally, if you fear others’ reactions, then imagine you are a teacher teaching them about how you work.  Don’t wait until you are a boiling, angry cauldron of resentment.  Tell them, now, what works for you.

Learning to say no is an advanced skill if you are a kind person.  But if you learn it, you will free yourself up to be healthy, and to help others more effectively.