How to Say No (Without Feeling Guilty)

It’s one of the smallest, shortest words in the English language, but one of the hardest to say. This week, Savvy Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, offers seven ways to say no (and maybe not even feel guilty!).

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #103

This week’s episode is for listener Stephanie from Adelaide, South Australia, who sent me a lovely email that inspired me when I was dragging.

We’ve all been there.  We’re minding our own business when we get a call, an email, or a “whaaaat’s happening?” Office Space-style cubicle visit, and that other f-word gets lobbed at us: favor.

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Sometimes, of course, we say yes.  We’re delighted to help out—it’s fun, rewarding, or win-win. But sometimes we feel anything but delighted: we feel bad, obligated, resentful, or pressured. And it’s almost guaranteed: we feel guilty.

So today, let’s talk about why not to feel guilty when you say no to coming in on Saturday, coordinating the preschool fun fair for the third year in a row, or loaning your pickup truck to your friend who’s moving this weekend. That, plus seven concrete ways to say no, from beginner to ninja.  

Let’s start with why you shouldn’t feel guilty about saying no. First, guilt is an emotion reserved for when you do something wrong. If you hurt someone, it’s appropriate to feel guilty. Now, saying no might create a little extra work for the person you’re declining because now they have to ask someone else or otherwise rethink, but it falls well short of hurtful.  

To make this more visual, picture a flowchart—saying no simply sends someone in a different direction. People are scrappy and creative. If you say no, they’ll recalibrate and take another path. You’re no Obi Wan Kenobi—seldom it is true that you’re really someone’s only hope. There are almost always other options out there for them and the favor they need.

Second, we often feel guilty because not only do we think we’re hurting the other person, but we expect retaliation. We think, “She’s going to hate me,” “He’ll get mad,” or “I’ll get fired.” Our brains jump to the worst-case scenario. So instead, let’s take a step back and look at all the other, much more likely possibilities that our brains leap-frogged over on the way to the worst.  

Ask yourself instead, what’s a more likely scenario? Maybe your requestor will be momentarily disappointed, but understand and then get help elsewhere. Or, let’s generate a most likely scenario this way: what happens when someone says no to you? Do you fly into a rage, burst blood vessels, and froth at the mouth? I’m assuming you don’t. So why the double standard?  Expect reasonable others to react as you do—that is to say, reasonably.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.