How to Say “No” Without Feeling Guilty (9 Tips)

Do you always say “yes” to requests and want to help everyone? Would you (or others) describe yourself as a people pleaser? Being kind and helpful is not a bad thing. But, when taken too far, it can become harmful to your wellbeing, career, health and relationships. Career and work-life balance coach Marie Dewulf shares tips on how to begin to say “no” with more confidence.


If you’re a pleaser, the first – and very important – step is to identify your boundaries. Only then can you start learning to say “no” without feeling guilty. Setting limits doesn’t have to be done aggressively; you can be assertive and kind.  

9 tips to get you started saying “no”  

1.    You can’t please everyone 

Saying “yes” often comes from a place of fear. You may try to please everyone to be liked, avoid conflict, or not be seen as selfish. Whatever your reasons, no one wins if you always agree to do something. Especially not you. 

Saying “yes” to everything can become exhausting, potentially harming your wellbeing and affecting your mental and physical health. It can lower your productivity, and jeopardise your career. Saying “yes” all the time can also impact your family life and relationships by making you feel more stressed.

So remember that saying “no” is absolutely okay. It is often the kinder and more helpful thing to do than agreeing to everything.

2.    Don’t apologise for saying “no”

As pleasers we may be tempted to apologise for saying “no” (because we feel guilty). If you don’t have time, or it’s not your responsibility to do something, there isn’t anything to apologise for! There are only a few times when saying “sorry” might be appropriate.

This doesn’t mean that you should be rude or unpleasant. Instead, find a way to be kind and gentle when you say “no”. For example, you might say something like this: “Thank you for reaching out to me. I wish I were in a position to help you, but I don’t have the time for it right now.” 

3.    Pause and consider the context

When someone asks you to do something, pause before saying “yes” or “no”. Think about what is being requested and how it will affect you and your life. Questions you can ask yourself include:

  • Would this be a short-term or long-term commitment?
  • Will this benefit me, my family, or the company I work for?
  • Does it help me move towards my own goals?
  • Does it excite me, and would it be fun to do?
  • Is it something someone else could do, or are my specific skills required?
  • Will I regret not doing it, or would it be a relief not to do it?

Only when you have the answers to these questions can you give a considered response.

4.    Communicate clearly and simply by being direct

Once you’ve decided to agree to a request or not, communicate it clearly and simply. The easiest way to do this is to be direct and explain the reasons from your own perspective.  

If you say “no”, make it clear that it’s not about the person making the request; it’s about you. Be sure to explain your limits. If your reason is unclear, you risk getting the request again. For example, you might say:“Unfortunately I’m not able to help you at the moment. I already have a few deadlines, and I won’t be able to dedicate the time your task deserves.”

If you say “yes”, explain your specific reasons to establish that you’re not doing it to please anyone. For example, you can say: “I would love to help you! This will be a great challenge for me, and the team will definitely learn a lot from working on this.”

Giving a reason sets your boundaries for the future. 

5.    Offer an alternative or compromise

Saying “no” doesn’t have to create conflicts or be a major struggle. Sometimes a compromise or offering an alternative way of doing things is the best approach. Be pragmatic, respectful and understanding towards others. 

If you’re the only one who can do the task, you might say that you will be happy to supervise and guide someone else, or show someone else how to do it for next time. For example, you can say: “This task isn’t my responsibility anymore. I would prefer to explain it to a colleague so they can do it next time.” 

You can also agree on a time limit for the task or a compromise on quality. For example:

“I’m happy to do the report, but it won’t be thorough in the amount of time you’ve given me. If you want a good report, I recommend extending the deadline by two weeks or giving it to another team member.”

Find a way that will work for both sides.  

6.    Start saying “no” to small requests

If you’re not used to saying “no”, starting to say it can feel daunting and overwhelming. This can put you off even starting. So start small. Choose an area where you find it difficult to decline requests, even when you want to. Then select a specific, small and inconsequential request to say “no” to. From there, you can build your no-saying muscle and begin to decline more difficult asks.

7.    Give others time to adjust to the new, assertive you

If you’ve always said “yes” to everyone, it might surprise them when you start saying “no”. Give them a chance to get used to you setting your limits.  

8.    Show yourself compassion

Learning something new takes practice and means you’ll fail sometimes. Be kind to yourself and learn from the situation. Dig deep, and find out why you let someone cross your boundaries. Then try again.

Sometimes, the environment you’re in forces you to cross your boundaries. If it keeps happening regularly, it will be necessary to change something (in your work, family and/or home) to better support your needs and boundaries. Be aware of this as you make the change to reset your limits!

9.    Practise and be consistent

Saying “no” requires practice. You won’t get comfortable with it straight away because you’re not used to it. You also need to do it consistently. The more you practise saying “no” and protecting your boundaries, the easier it will become.

To make sure you feel prepared to say “no”, create a list of responses to tasks that you usually say “yes” to but want to say “no” to. Write down your answers and have them ready for when you need them. 

Practising these nine tips will help you to protect your boundaries. As a result, you will start feeling less guilty about saying “no” and begin to feel the freedom that comes from no longer being a people pleaser. It is, after all, to everyone’s benefit… 

Have you overcome a habit of always saying “yes”? What tips would you add? We always love to hear from you!

PHOTO: Pexels/Cottonbro Studio
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marie Dewulf is a career clarity coach and work-life harmony coach. Using a proven framework she has developed over 18 years, she helps perfectionists and pleasers who feel exhausted, stressed and stuck at work; expats who feel lost, insecure and want to get their career back on track; and professionals who are frustrated, bored or unmotivated and want to get clear on what’s next. Marie coaches in English, French and Dutch. If you want to know more about her, visit www.coach2moveon.com.