Overwhelmed In Life? How To Learn To Say No

Medically reviewed by Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated April 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Do you often take on more tasks than you can handle? Do you often agree to tasks you don’t want to do? Are your goals falling by the wayside because you’re constantly helping someone else meet their goals? If you do, learning to say “No” and setting boundaries with the people in your life may be beneficial. Although it can be challenging to set boundaries, learning your limits may improve your relationships and self-compassion and help you manage your time more efficiently.

Getty/Vadym Pastuk
Setting healthy boundaries can help you feel less overwhelmed

The benefit of saying “no”

Each person has 24 hours a day, many of which are spent sleeping or resting. If you often say “Yes” to the requests of others, you may be saying “No” to yourself. For example, perhaps you often stay late when your boss asks you to work overtime and miss your child’s basketball game. Alternatively, perhaps you choose to help your friends move or give them a ride when you want to take the day to relax after a stressful week. 

When you agree to help others at the expense of yourself, you prioritize their wants and needs over your own. While it can be positive to offer kindness, empathy, and support occasionally, it can become dangerous when you do it despite your own needs or never say “No” when you want to. 

The benefit of saying “No” is that you can take the time to care for your mental, emotional, and physical needs. In addition, you can show others that they cannot take advantage of you or expect you to be there 100% of the time, as you’re human, too. 

How do you know you’re overwhelmed?

If you constantly agree to every request from others, you may experience mental burnout and become overwhelmed. Burnout can cause the following symptoms to occur: 

  • A lack of enjoyment in previously enjoyed activities 

  • A belief that you never have time to rest 

  • Exhaustion

  • Irritability

  • Anxiety

  • A lack of self-care

  • Decreased productivity

  • A lack of motivation

  • Depression 

  • Negative self-talk 

  • Quick anger 

Allowing yourself to reach burnout to support others may mean you’re not helping anyone. When you can’t support yourself, the support you give to others may not come from your best self. Learning to say “no” and prioritizing yourself and your values can improve your mental health and relationships with others. 

Tips on how to say “no” to others

Burnout, overwhelm, and anxiety can lead to serious health concerns. For this reason, it can be essential to address your overwhelm before it negatively impacts your well-being. Below are a few tips to make setting boundaries easier. 

Don’t give a definite answer

If you struggle with turning people down when they ask you, buy yourself time by learning to postpone answering. If someone doesn’t need you to respond immediately, you can use a phrase like, “I’ll check and get back to you tomorrow.” If you often agree to favors at the moment, this strategy gives you time to consider if you want to agree to the request. It can also give you time to build the confidence to decline or devise an alternate arrangement. 

Don’t provide details

Others may not require details about your actions and why you declined their request. You don’t need a reason to decline or set a boundary. Practice turning someone down on their request without making an excuse. Below is an example of how to reframe a boundary: 

  • Incorrect: “I’m sorry. I’m unable to help you tomorrow. I have five appointments and don’t think I’ll have time.”

  • Correct: “No, I can’t do that tomorrow.” 

When you practice not giving a reason for your boundaries, it shows others that you deserve respect for being another human, not because of an excuse. It may also show whether others are willing to respect you based on your word. If they ask why you can’t help, repeat your boundary by stating, “I can’t help tomorrow.” 

It is their responsibility to learn to cope with rejection or a change of their plans if that is a challenge for them. You are not obligated to help them figure out a backup plan if they have been mentally relying on you. 


Don’t apologize

If you struggle with people-pleasing, you may feel guilty when you decline someone’s request. You may fear they won’t like you anymore or will be mad at you. This fear may cause you to apologize when you reject a request. However, it may be counterproductive to apologize.  

Setting boundaries is healthy and within your rights as a human being. If you are setting boundaries for your space, body, belongings, and energy and not attempting to control another person, you are within your right to say no without an excuse. When you apologize, you could send the message to yourself and the other person that saying no is wrong. 

Consider a situation before agreeing to it

Another reason it can be helpful to give yourself time before answering is that it allows you to think about what you are agreeing to. In some cases, an individual may be asking you to make commitments that require more time and energy than you can give. If you are in the habit of agreeing too quickly, you may not understand every aspect of the request.

If you’re unsure, ask questions and gather more information before agreeing or disagreeing. Learn what might be required of you. Don’t allow others to rush you into answering. If they are pushing you or acting as if you “owe them,” it may be best to decline to ensure you save your mental health. 

Establish your priorities

Before accepting a request, consider your values and priorities. If your top three priorities are family time, earning your college degree, and helping at the animal shelter, being asked to volunteer at a homeless shelter might be fulfilling but doesn’t align with your main priorities. Declining the opportunity may not mean you dislike supporting homeless individuals. However, it can mean you don’t have time to commit to another project or goal. 

Establishing priorities and staying focused can allow you to give your best self to those few areas instead of spreading yourself too thin by trying to be everything to everyone.

Look for ways to compromise

You may not want to say “no” if there is a way you can compromise. For example, if a friend asks you to watch their children on Friday night so they can go out, but you’re unavailable, you could offer to watch her children on a Saturday night instead. If helping someone is essential to you and you don’t mind, consider making it work better by suggesting an alternative. 


Declining a request or setting boundaries can seem more manageable in theory than practice. For that reason, it may be helpful to practice when you’re alone. Rehearse your different answers. Practice saying, “I’ll have to get back to you about that,” and “I’m not available.” 

If you have a trusted friend or family member who supports you in learning to say “no,” have them roleplay with you. They can ask you for a few requests you hear regularly, and you can practice politely declining. The more you practice, the easier it may become. 

Use alternative phrases to “no” 

If you’re struggling to come up with ways to politely say “no,” consider the following: 

  • I don’t have time right now. 

  • Thank you for asking, but I’m unable to. 

  • I’d love to, but other commitments need my attention.

  • No, thank you. 

  • I’m uninterested. 

  • I’m busy that day. 

  • Let’s plan for another time. 

  • I’m going to do something else that day. 

  • My schedule is full right now. 

Take these ideas and switch them up until you find a way that you can confidently say “no” when needed. 

Remember your perceptions may be inaccurate 

Declining someone’s request, especially if you are close to them, may seem wrong to you at first. However, this perception may not accurately portray whether your boundaries are healthy. Take time to consider why you believe you can’t set boundaries with the people in your life. 

Some people fear setting boundaries because they believe others won’t like them. Others might be worried they’ll lose friends or coworkers. However, healthy people will accept your boundaries. If they don’t accept your boundaries, they may be disrespecting you. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Setting healthy boundaries can help you feel less overwhelmed

Talk to a therapist 

Setting boundaries can be challenging if you live with a mental health condition or have been through a situation that makes you believe you don’t have the right to your body, time, belongings, space, or energy. In these cases, talking to a therapist to explore how to set boundaries healthily may be beneficial. 

If you are worried about seeing a therapist in person or can’t afford face-to-face sessions, you can also try online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp. With an online therapist, you can receive worksheets, journaling prompts, and goals to work on from home. In addition, you can send your therapist messages throughout the week if you need advice, receiving responses as soon as they’re available. 

Research has considered the benefits of online therapy and found it effective. One study determined that online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) was more effective than in-person therapy in convenience, affordability, and quality of life metrics. Clients reported reduced depression and anxiety symptoms after treatment. 


Learning to set boundaries to take control of your schedule and personal needs can be challenging. If you have had a long-term pattern of letting people take advantage of you, it may be difficult to start saying “no.” In these cases, you might benefit from therapeutic support. Consider reaching out to a licensed therapist online or in your area to get started.

You are deserving of positive self-esteem
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