How to Say No Without Regrets

A couple having a quarrel

Have you ever said yes to someone's odd request because you didn't want them to think you were an a**hole? Do you give away your help expecting nothing in return, just to be good and kind and pleasant? Do you ever find it hard to disagree with someone or simply say no to their request?  

Well, you're not alone. Just a couple of years ago my entire social life revolved around pleasing everyone around me. 

In order to be get along with people, I would bend over backwards to meet their expectations. And at that time, it seemed like an amazing tradeoff to just cave in to peer pressure and social expectations in order to avoid rejection and conflict.

If one of my friends needed help - any kind of help - I was happy to oblige. No, not just happy but downright honored. It made me feel needed and it was a good feeling. I didn't even care if generosity meant staying up late or go out of my way. 

My helpfulness was virtually endless. Everybody could count on me - and they did. Sometimes I had a feeling that people were lining up behind my door ready for a generous serving of my kindness. 

And the end result was almost always the same. I overexerted myself. And this grand self-image of the "knight in shining armor" that helps all those in need cost me countless personal sacrifices.

And what do you think I did when during a conversation with a friend I felt a strong urge to disagree with what they were saying? I pretended to agree, putting a wide fake smile on my face. Anything to avoid conflict... I felt my spine crumble a little each time this happened.

In my experience, shy people tend to find saying no difficult. They find it very challenging to even voice their own opinions when it goes against that of someone else. Instead, they choose to blend in with the crowd in an unassuming manner and prefer to be out of sight and out of mind. 

A Favor for the Bully

Water Drops on Glass

Let me tell you a story from my childhood that will hopefully show you what an tough situation saying yes to everything can land you in.

I must have been about 14 years old. We were writing a chemistry test in elementary school. I was pretty good at chemistry and all my clasmates were aware of that. 

That day I was especially quick and finished writing the test within 20 minutes - 25 minutes earlier than everybody else. So I sat back in my chair basking in my confidence as only a 14 year old can, looking around at all the hunched backs still scribbling on their chemistry papers. 

And then it happened. 

One of my classmates passed his paper to me with a note telling me to write it for him.

I kid you not.

For a moment, I was surprised. But then the muscle memory built by several years of saying yes to everything kicked in and I started scribbling again just like everyone else. 

And the irony of the story is that the kid that asked me to write his test for him was the biggest bully in class that had been picking on me for years. 

Needless to say, after the test was over, he didn't even say thank you. He smugly walked out of the classroom with his cronies at his side laughing.

Why Can't You Say No?

And that was not the only time my compulsive yes-manship got me in trouble. 

But why is it so hard to say no to a request or stand up for your opinion?

The Benefit of Always Meeting Expectations

On the one hand a deep-seated desire to meet expectations is at work every time you say yes. Because after all, meeting expectations earns trust and builds a relationship. By being available all the time and going out of your way to be that "nice guy" that everyone likes.

And that's a great benefit - until someone uses your kindness. But sure, in the beginning, you'll get your fair share of gratitude and admiring looks. 

And let's be honest: it feels great to able to help while not needing help yourself. It rubs the ego in the right way.

The "Social Lubricant" Effect

For many shy people the willingness to help whenever someone's in need is probably the easiest way to make friends. If you're socially anxious, then useful to others is a great way to start relationships. 

(And it says a lot about your self-esteem.)

And so why would you say no if someone approaches you with a request? It's actually a great opportunity to meet someone new and it doesn't require any social skills. You instantly have something to talk about and a reason to hang out together, which is great. 

These benefits might make you forget about the uncomfortable fact that you might overexerting yourself. Or that they aren't interested in you, as a person, but in what you can do for them, as a service. 

"What Will They Think About Me?"

Swimming Under Water

"If I decline, they'll think that I'm cold-hearted. Or that I don't like them. They might get hurt if I say no." 

"No, I simply can't say no, it will only lead to a quarrel. Nah, I'll just beat around the bush and avoid direct confrontation for as long as I can. I'll find excuses and then I'll make up stories. They'll soon get exhausted and forget."

Fear of Conflict

Couple Having a Quarrel

Saying "No!" can be scary.

"No" is a word that draws a line around you and tells everyone not to cross that line. Therefore the word "No!" reflects strength. It creates a social situation where your partner has no choice but to either accept your newly declared personal boundary or start questioning it and start a quarrel. 

And that 50% chance of a verbal conflict is scary because no one likes to argue, right? So we often dodge the bullet by trying to be pleasant and kind all the time - even if that means going against our true feelings.

The Price of Saying Yes All the Time

I learned it the hard way that saying no - even if it displeases someone - is a priceless skill. Without it, you risk being taken for granted, or worse; being taken advantage of. 

You see, if you don't stand up for yourself, no one will. You must be the proponent of what's in your best interest or else no one will know what you truly want and they'll end up ignoring your needs.

Becoming a "Doormat"

The first price yes-men pay is becoming a doormat. People will just walk all over you and use you. If I had dollar for every "friend" that copied my homework, asked me for some money, or just needed some urgent help every other week, I would be very rich by now. 

But I really can't blame anyone for my stupidity, can I? After all, I never really expected anything in return for my help to begin with. All I secretly longed for was for somebody to call me a friend and mean it.

The thing is, people have a way of sniffing out if you're overly generous with your time. And before you know it, they'll take advantage of your generosity. 

Many times you won't even notice this, basking in the never-ending shower of "thank you." You'll be seduced by the alluring promise of a budding friendship, unable to draw the distinction between becoming a doormat and being in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Unnecessary Self-sacrifice

Self-sacrifice is a fantastic virtue. Christianity for example, was partly built upon the loving self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ who died so that humanity's sins could be forgiven.

In fact, many religions consider self-sacrifice one of the highest virtues attainable. Buddha in one of his previous life cycles allowed himself to be eaten by a hungry tigress so that her milk would come back and her cubs would not starve to death. 

On the flipside however, a life of self-sacrifice is riddled with pain and suffering as most religious texts so graphically describe.

If you're always available to meet the expectations of other people, if you always have time for others but rarely for yourself, then you're sacrificing your own time and energy for someone else that may or may not be worthy of your sacrifice in the first place. 

And there's some sad irony in this. Because if you do it for long enough, you'll attract enough leechers into your life that will literally suck your energy reserves dry. And by the time significant person in your life truly needs your help, you might not have the energy or the time anymore to be able to support them.

I like the way Karl Lagerfeld talks about it:

"Don’t sacrifice yourself too much, because if you sacrifice too much there’s nothing else you can give and nobody will care for you."

It Devalues Your Time and Effort

What kind of impression do you think it leaves when you're indiscriminately available for everyone?

On the one hand, they'll think that you like helping people. So they'll think that they're not really using you, because they're letting you do what you like. Aren't they considerate?

On the other hand, people will take you for granted and think that your time and energy is not as valuable. After all, you don't seem to value your time all that much so why should they value it any more than you? Judging by the amount of help you give left and right, you seem to have plenty of spare time on your hands, too. 

So saying yes to everything creates the impression that your time is either not valuable or that you have too much time on your hands. Neither of which is true, I'm sure. 

This is How You Say No

If you want to learn how to say no to someone in the face of social pressure and your inherent desire to meet expectations and behave nice and pleasant, I have a challenge for you.

It's going to push you a little bit outside of your comfort zone but that's a good thing. You need to experience that saying no is not a sin. It doesn't make you cold-hearted, unfriendly or bad in any way. 

So let's see the challenge that I've prepared for you to gently kick you in the "but" and help you experience what it's like to put yourself first even if that means getting in the way of others. 

First, find a busy place.

It can be anything where you can buy something and they have a wide selection of prodcuts right around where the cashier is standing. When I did this, I decided to go to Burger King. It was busy and it was close by and that's all I needed.

Once you found your busy place, stand in line and wait for your turn to pay.

And then, when it's your turn, instead of telling the cashier what you want to buy, take your time and start looking at the menu up on the wall. Act like you haven't decided what you want to buy yet.

There's several ways you can go about this part. You might just want to ask a bunch of questions from the cashier about their different products. Or you might choose to just look at the menu as if you're reading it, not sure what you want to buy yet. It's really up to you. 

The point of the challenge is to create a situation where you're deliberately being an annoyance to the people around you. You're doing this to get used to the idea of choosing yourself over others.

At first it will be uncomfortable for sure. You'll feel like everybody is staring at you frowning impatiently. You'll feel terrible about it, as if you were committing a crime of some kind. 

But for the second or the third time, you're going to feel much more realistic about it. Your guilty conscience will go away and you'll notice that people are actually very patient and kind. They won't mind if you take a few minutes to place your order. Heck, everybody has probably done something like that at one point in their lives.

I mean what can realistically happen? Someone might actually politely ask you to hurry up a little. But that's about the worst that can happen and it's not a big deal. You'll probably never see those people again in your life anyway. 

But you need to experience what it's like to say no to the expectations of a several people while they're staring you down.... and live with it. Let the liberating feeling of putting yourself first wash over you and wake you up to the awesomeness of standing up for yourself.

Final Thoughts

Saying no is difficult if you're a shy person. But it's something that you'll have to learn to do as fast as possible. 

Drawing a distinct personal boundary between you and the rest of the world is a healthy thing that everyone does. It's not cold-hearted and it's not unkind.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald puts it in Tender Is The Night & The Last Tycoon:

"If you spend your life sparing people's feelings and feeding their vanity, you get so you can't distinguish what should be respected in them."

Or as Anne Lamott briskly summarizes the gist of it:

"'No' is a complete sentence."

If you have anything to share or any questions to ask, feel free to post it in the comment section below. I'll get back to you as soon as I can!

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