Setting limits: saying “no” nicely

Many of us were raised to believe that the only polite or kind answer is “yes.” But as Dr. Christine Carter, a UC Berkeley researcher, notes, “If you find yourself saying ‘yes’ when you mean ‘no,’ it’s a recipe for overwhelm and exhaustion.” Not to mention resentment, burnout, and ill health!

Ironically, research shows that the busier we are, the more we tend to say “yes.” Saying “yes” makes us feel generous. The consequences—becoming stressed and overburdened by the commitment—are down the road. We’d rather overlook those realities than feel stingy or selfish right now by setting limits and saying “no.”

According to Dr. Carter, there are three steps to saying “no” gracefully:

  • Rehearse saying “no.” There is a process. First, avoid comparing your need to the other person’s. Then, train yourself to think through how you will feel when the day of reckoning comes. Recall the last time you overextended yourself and ended up sick. Or ended up too tired to do something you were looking forward to. Finally, practice a few phrases that you can readily use, no extra thinking required.
  • Be truthful, but vague. Having a response you feel confident in makes it more likely that you will use it. You don’t have to justify yourself. (Too much detail and the requester will start problem solving to help you find the time!) A simple “I wish I could, but that doesn’t work for me at this time” is an effective standby. Or if you would genuinely like to help, “I can’t do ‘X’ next Thursday, but I could do ‘Y’ the week after that.”
  • Make your decision final. If the person pushes you, repeat the same phrase. This way you signal that you aren’t going to change your mind. If they insist, then be honest about how their pressure makes you feel: uncomfortable, perhaps even hurt or angry.