Boost Your Mental Health by Saying ‘No’
Marie Silvani recently received a flattering request. Two women on her tennis team asked her to be the captain.
She didn’t really want to do it. She’d recently retired and wanted to have more time to herself. But instead of declining outright, she equivocated. “Let me think about it,” she said.
“I forgot how to say no,” says Ms. Silvani, 65, a retired entrepreneur. “It’s been awhile.”
“No” has never been an easy word to say, especially to the people we care about most. And after two years of pandemic life—with very few invites to decline—we may be even rustier than usual at delivering the bad news.
Yet, many of us now are fielding more invites and requests than we have in years. We’re eager to get back out there. We’re also burnt out on stress and schedules that often seem like all work and no fun. We know that if we want to rebuild lives that are more balanced and more meaningful we need to prioritize. Learning to decline requests will be crucial to this effort.
Think of saying no as the ultimate self-care strategy.
“If we just agree to everything mindlessly, we are not going to be able to come up with the priorities to take us where we want to go,” says Vanessa Bohns, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University.
We sometimes say yes simply because we’re uncomfortable saying no. We’re social beings—we want people to like us. We feel guilty if we let others down or hurt their feelings, especially our closest family and friends. They’re the ones who often want us to say yes the most—and who may experience our “no” as a rejection of them, rather than of the request.
We also may worry that there will be repercussions. Maybe saying will not harm the relationship. Or maybe if we say no we won’t be asked again. This fear of missing out is especially potent right now, says Jenny Taitz, a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, Calif.
“We haven’t seen folks in years and feel like new patterns and groups are forming,” she says. “And we want to be sure we’re in the mix.”
Some people have a harder time saying no than others, including people who are anxious, conflict-avoidant or eager to please. And women typically experience more guilt when they say no, largely because of society’s expectation that they say yes to requests for help, says Laurie Weingart, a professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and co-author of “The No Club : Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work,” which details how she and several colleagues started a support group to help each other learn to say no.
Yet, research shows that most people probably won’t be as upset by our “no” as we think they will, says Dr. Bohns, author of “You Have More Influence Than You Think.” This is because we have a “harshness bias”—a tendency to believe that others will judge us more severely than they actually do.
What is the best way to say no? Here’s some advice.
We tend to overestimate how quickly people expect us to get back to them, even via email. Dr. Bohns recommends pausing before responding to an invite or request. Figure out what you want to do first.
This is easy to do in email or text. If the person is asking you for an answer in person, buy yourself some time. You can ask them if you can get back to them later. And request more information so you can make an informed decision.
Start with thank you.
You can’t stall forever. That’s not good for your relationship.
You’ll make the other person feel better—less personally rejected—by showing appreciation for their request or offer: “Thank you so much for thinking of me! I’d love to, but unfortunately…”
And you’ll feel less guilty about saying no if you were gracious about it, says Dr. Taitz.
It’s tempting to offer up a little white lie. (“Sorry, I have to babysit my niece that day.”) But dishonesty drives a wedge in a relationship, Dr. Taitz says. And it will make you feel anxious about being found out.
It’s better to give an honest—and gracious—response, she says. An example: “I’d love to come to dinner, thanks. But I reserve evenings for time with my family.”
Even a difficult and anxiety-producing request can be answered with polite honesty, Dr. Taitz says. Did your friend ask if he could invite his obnoxious cousin to go golfing with you? Try this: “I appreciate you asking. Bob’s a fun guy. But I’m not sure he’s a good fit with the other folks who will be there.”
Soften the blow.
You can do this by offering to do something else for the person. If you ca n’t attend a friend’s wedding, for instance, you could offer to help with the planning of her, or even just to take her to lunch to hear about it.
Dr. Weingart calls this the “positive no” approach. It’s often done in negotiations.
There’s a formula: yes-no-yes. Say yes to yourself first (by deciding to prioritize your time over the request). Say no to the request. Then follow that up with another yes, which is the offer to do something else. It should be something that works for both of you, says Dr. Weingart.
Some people refuse to take no for an answer. If this happens, try repeating—politely!—what you already told them. You may also need to say: “I feel like you’re pressing me. Please understand why I really can’t say yes.”
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Ms. Silvani, who lives in North Palm Beach, Fla., used to be very bad at saying no. For years, she said yes to nearly every project, dinner party and charity event that came her way from her. “I’m a people pleaser,” she says.
Eventually, she became so exhausted that her health—and her relationships—suffered. So she tried an experiment. For one year, she gave a simple “no”—“not some lengthy BS excuse”—to every big request she received. She even kept a button on her desk that blurted out several versions of “no” when she pushed it.
“I learned that ‘no’ can be a complete sentence,” she says.
Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at Elizabeth.Bernstein@wsj.com
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