If saying yes leads to stress, allow yourself to say no

The ability to say no is a basic skill. Here are some guidelines on how best to negotiate this minefield

You are at your desk and a colleague comes over and says, “We are collecting €20 each for Joanne’s new baby.” You are sitting there thinking, I have met Joanne only twice. I don’t know the girl and, even if I did, I can’t afford it. I have already turned down my daughter’s request for a similar amount to buy a top she wanted. So what is our typical response? “Oh, that’s great. Here you are. Hope mother and baby are doing well.” Inside you are boiling, but slightly relieved that you have not been judged as a meanie. But the overriding emotion is that you want to scream.

Does this sound familiar? Or what about when you are at the supermarket checkout and there are charity bag packers hovering at the end of the checkout? The last time you let them pack your groceries they broke two eggs and squashed your bread. So what do you do this time? Typically, we thank them, let them ruin our tomatoes, and then give them €2.

Or the person beside you at Mass has been sneezing and snuffling through the entire service. It comes to offering the sign of peace and they thrust their hand in your direction. You had a virus for 10 weeks last winter and want to avoid that plague this year. What do we typically do? Smile, shake hands, say “Peace be with you” and hope the virus doesn’t spread. Will we ever learn?

In his book Not Enough Hours, my colleague Dr Owen Fitzpatrick says: "When we say yes to someone else, we are saying no to ourselves. When we say no to someone else, we are saying yes to ourselves."


The ability to say no is a fundamental skill we must all learn. What most people need to understand is that saying yes when we would prefer to say no increases our stress.

There are useful guidelines on how to get this right in Dr Manuel Smith's book When I Say No I Feel Guilty. Smith describes what he calls his "Assertive Bill of Rights". He says we all have the right to:

  • Judge our own behaviours, thoughts or emotions, and not worry what others think.
  • Offer no reasons, justifications or explanations for our actions.
  • Judge whether we are responsible to provide solutions to others' problems.
  • Change our minds
  • Make mistakes and be responsible for them.
  • Say "I don't know."
  • Be independent of the goodwill of others before deciding what we want to do.
  • Be illogical in making decisions.
  • Say "I don't understand."
  • Say "I don't care."

Some of us may be uncomfortable with these assertive rights, but we should all try to get used to them in order to avoid doing something we would prefer not do.

With that in mind, here are my top 10 ways to say no without feelings of guilt or of being put upon:

  • Clarify your priorities. Remember, you are not obliged to be the solution to others' problems.
  • Develop a strategy of kicking for touch when you feel pressurised into making a commitment about which you are ambivalent. "That sounds like a lovely idea, but I will have to check my diary and get back to you."
  • Practise different ways of saying no. "Sorry, I'm not in a position to help at this time." "I would love to go, but I have a prior appointment." "I can't mind your (cat, dog, child) because I am allergic to them." "I don't carry cash." "Someone else got in ahead of you" or just plain old "No".
  • Recognise that there are many more worthy causes in the world than you are going to be able to contribute to. Decide what causes are closest to your heart and stick to them.
  • Offer help on your terms. "Unfortunately, I can't join the committee for the sale of work but I would be delighted to donate a cake."
  • Remember that yes can mean stress. Raised blood pressure, loss of family time, fatigue and decreased performance in areas that matter are the result of saying yes when you really want to say no. Don't forget that.
  • Have a generic phrase ready for any situation that causes you a dilemma. For example, "That does not suit me right now, but I will get back to you if anything changes."
  • Debunk the idea that the world will cave in if you do not agree to a request. Too many of us are too willing to take on the Mother Teresa or Florence Nightingale mantle. None of us is indispensable and we must remind ourselves that the world will still turn if we say no.
  • Remember Kiss: keep it short and simple. You do not owe anyone a long-winded explanation in the event that you refuse a request.
  • Transfer ownership of your refusal to something else. "My budget won't stretch that far." "I have a prior commitment." "I have so much on at the moment, I simply cannot help."

So there we are. Go forth with a newfound confidence to say no, despite our cultural disposition to please others.

Dr Mark Harrold is a clinical psychologist