Saying no to requests for help

Saying no is a great concept, but when it’s a request for help, it can be hard. Photo by Andy T on Unsplash

Does your value system require you to say yes to requests for help?  If so, how on earth can you make sure that your life is balanced?  There is a tension there between your desire to help as many people as possible, and your wish to stay healthy.


Balance is the sense that you can happily manage everything on your plate, without losing the richness and flavour that you assciate with a happy life.

If you become unbalanced in favour of action, then you will find yourself with a full diary, but you will feel starved of time to rest and be yourself.  If you become unbalanced in favour of richness and flavour, then you may find yourself permanently on holiday, but may become lonely and unsocialised.

A good balance has elements of both: the day is reasonably full, but you are able to participate in it without feeling rushed or tired out.  You are able to help people, but without running down your internal batteries.


When people ask you for help, it gives you a problem.  You may have been educated into a value system which says that you should never abandon anyone.  If you say no, you are abandoning them.  If you say yes, however, this next help request may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.


You may be facing the need to say no, but you may not have the language to say no.  If so, here are a few suggestions to consider:

  • Become a good signposter.  Signposting is when you point a help-requester in the direction of someone else who can help better than you.  You will need to get over your own arrogance.  I mean, obviously, ahem, you are the best person to help.  I don’t doubt that.  But if you can find a bit of humility, then you will find it easier to delegate the request to others who can take over the fulfilling of the need.
  • Make your existing tasks take longer.  This sounds peculiar, but it works.  If you are always squeezing help-requests into your diary, your tasks will become shorter and more strained.  You can combat this by deliberately spinning out your tasks.  So, if you are helping someone shop for an hour, then let it take two hours.  It will help you to get rid of the sense of tiredness and urgency, because you are not rushing so much.
  • Schedule for much longer than your tasks take.  This is linked to the previous suggestion.  Tasks are like sponges crammed together on a shelf.  They will crowd together until each sponge is empty of air, strangled.  However, if you set a rule that each sponge should be allowed to breathe, then the shelf as a whole can breathe.  The shelf is your day.  Allocate to each task the time to do it without strain, and with spare space.
  • Learn to say no with compassion.  You can replace ‘No, sorry,’ with ‘Oh I really wish I could help you with that, but I just don’t think I can.  Have you tried…?’  You are saying the same thing, but adding compassionate energy to your reply, so that you give adequate time to your response.  This saves you from overwhelm later.
  • Medicalise your no.  This is a hard one for those who like to appear all-competent.  There is nothing wrong with saying ‘I have a health issue which I have been asked to take care of.  Therefore I can’t help, but do keep me in touch with how it goes.’  Mental health is still the object of prejudice and judgement, so it is understandable if you want to leave it there, and not give away too much information.  But society does know that health is to be respected, and society tends to respect medically-sensitive needs.


The next time your kindness-tendency is hooked by someone’s request for help, stop and think.  Ask yourself:

  1. Can I signpost them to a more appropriate source of help?
  2. Have I allowed enough time for my existing tasks to be done in a fully expansive and caring way?
  3. Am I giving sufficient protection to the existing commitments in my diary?
  4. Can I say no, but also give additional compassion so that the other person knows I mean well?
  5. Can I reframe my refusal in medicalised terms?  There is nothing wrong with saying ‘I need to take care of a health problem,’ even if that problem is your need for balance in your life.


You may have altruistic values.  If so, given that help requests can be limitless, you are vulnerable to overload.

You need to find balance, so that you are not starved of a sense of restfulness.

You can learn to say no to extra requests, by learning a few techniques of delegation, diary management, compassionate communication, and self-defensive language.

Good luck.