Overwhelmed In Life? How To Learn To Say No

Updated August 27, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Ann-Marie Duncan

Do you find that you’re constantly taking on more than you can really handle? Or, that you keep agreeing to do things that you really don’t want to do? Are your dreams and goals falling by the wayside because you’re constantly helping someone else do the things that they’re trying to accomplish? It may be time to learn how to say “No!”

You may be thinking something like, “Of course, I know how to say ‘no.’” But your life story might be painting another picture.

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Why You Should Learn To Say No

We only have so much time and energy to use on any given day. If you’re always saying “yes” to others, then it probably means that you’re often saying “no” to yourself. This could look like constantly staying late at work when your boss asks you to work overtime and missing out on your child’s basketball game. It could look like offering to help your friend move over the weekend when you really looking forward to having the day to relax after a stressful week.

When you always say “yes” to others, you prioritize their wants and needs over your own. While it’s good not to live selfishly where you never help others, it can be dangerous for your emotional health and mental wellness to never prioritize your own needs and wants.

Signs That You’re Overwhelmed

If you constantly agree to everything that others want you to do, you may quickly become burnt out and overwhelmed. When this happens, you experience the following symptoms:

  • Lack of enjoyment in your day
  • Feeling like you never have time to rest
  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of self-care
  • Decreased productivity
  • Lack of motivation

Allowing yourself to reach this point to help others means that you’re not doing the best for anyone. Learning how to say “no” and prioritize yourself and your values can help you protect your mental health.

Burnout, overwhelm, and anxiety can lead to serious health problems. This is why it can be important to address your overwhelm before it reaches the point of negatively impacting your wellbeing.

Tips On How To Say “No” To Others

  1. Don’t Give A Definite Answer

If you struggle with turning people down when they ask you, then buy yourself a little time by learning to postpone giving an answer. If someone doesn’t need you to give an immediate response, delay answering. You can use a phrase like, “I’ll have to check and get back with you.”

If you constantly find yourself agreeing to things at the moment, this gives you time to think about if you really want to say “yes” or not. It can also give you time to build up the confidence to say “no” or come up with an alternate arrangement that might work instead.

  1. Don’t Provide Details

People don’t need to know what you’re doing and why you’re saying no. In fact, you don’t even need a real reason to say “no” if you don’t want to do something. Practice turning someone down on their request without making an excuse.

For example, instead of saying something like, “I’m sorry, I’m not able to help you tomorrow. I have five appointments and just don’t think I’m going to have time.” you can say, “I’m not able to tomorrow.” You don’t owe anyone a reason.

  1. Don’t Apologize
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If you struggle with people-pleasing, then you may find that you feel guilty when you say “no” to someone. You may be afraid that they won’t like you anymore or that they’ll be mad at you. This can cause you to apologize when you’re turning down a request. You don’t need to do this.

There is no reason for you to feel bad or guilty because you chose not to do something that someone asked you to do. When you apologize, you could be sending the message to yourself and the other person that there is something wrong about you turning them down. There is no apology needed when you say “no.”

  1. Think About What You Agree To

One reason it can be helpful to give yourself time before answering is that you should carefully think about what you agree to. Sometimes people are asking you to commit to things that may require a lot of your time and energy. If you are in the habit of agreeing too quickly, you may not really understand what you agree to.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and gather more information before agreeing or disagreeing. Learn what will be required of you so you can see if it’s something you want to say “yes” to or not. Don’t allow others to make you feel rushed into answering. If they are trying to do that, then it may be better to say “no” because you don’t have a clear understanding of what the expectations would be on you.

  1. Establish Your Priorities

Taking time to think about what the priorities are in your life can help you learn what you want to agree to do and what you don’t have time for.

If you find that your top three priorities are your family time, earning your college degree, and helping at the animal shelter, then when someone asks you to volunteer at the homeless shelter, you can see that it doesn’t align with your priorities at the moment. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about homeless people, you just don’t have the time to commit to it at the moment. That doesn’t make you a bad person.

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When you establish priorities and work in a focused direction, it 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.

  1. Look For Ways To Compromise

You don’t have to give a flat “no” if there is a way that you can create a compromise that works for you. For example, if a friend asks you to watch her children on Friday night so she can go out, you don’t have to agree if you don’t want to. Instead, you could let her know that Friday night doesn’t work for you, but Saturday afternoon would.

If the person or thing is important for you, it’s OK to look for ways to make it fit into your schedule in a way that works for you as well.

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice

Saying “no” doesn’t always feel as easy as it sounds. That’s why it can be helpful to practice when you’re alone. Rehearse your different answers. Practice saying things like, “I’ll have to get back to you about that.” and “I’m not able to.”

If you have a trusted friend or family member that supports you in learning how to say “no,” then have them role-play with you. They can ask you some of the different requests that you hear regularly, and you can practice declining politely. The more you practice, the easier it can become.

A Few More Phrases That You Can Use

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

  • I don’t have time at this moment.
  • Thank you for asking, but I’m not able to.
  • I’d love to, but I have other commitments that need my attention.

Don’t be afraid to take these ideas and switch things up until you find a way that you can confidently say “no” when you want to.

Remember, Your Perceptions Aren’t Always Accurate

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Remember, it’s OK to say “no” to other people. It may feel wrong to you, but that doesn’t mean it is. Take time to explore where those feelings are coming from so you can address them.

You may be afraid to say “no” to others because you feel that they won’t like you. And, you don’t want to lose friends or frustrate coworkers, so you constantly agree just to keep them happy. The truth is that people won’t usually respond the way you think they’re going to.

You may feel that saying “no” is going to make you appear confrontational to others, but according to research, that’s not likely what they are thinking.

When You Need A Little Support

Learning to say “no” to people and take control of your schedule and life can be hard. It can be especially hard if you’ve been in the pattern of allowing others to have this control over you. If you feel that you could use a little extra help in making this transition, talking to a therapist may be just the thing you need.

Licensed therapists, like those at BetterHelp, can help you learn effective strategies to overcome being overwhelmed in your life. They can also help you learn how to build your self-esteem if you struggle with people-pleasing and similar behaviors. Remember, learning to say “no” others can help you learn how to say “yes” to yourself.


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