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We all have times where we feel guilty.
We feel guilty about being bad parents, for not exercising enough, for not eating healthily, for not getting all the jobs that we have on our ‘list’ done, for not doing more for our families, for not helping others enough, for working too hard, for not working hard enough (?!), for not helping out at our kids’ school…In fact, it’s pretty much a guilt convention – and a large international one at that. Here, we look at how to say no.
Because, folks, enough is enough. Time to get a handle on this and slay the Guilt Monster once and for all.
Why do we feel so guilty?
There are lots of reasons why people feel guilty. Some of these reasons are complex and deeply rooted in our psyche. They are often based on our past experiences, such as survivor guilt, or because we did something that contravened our values or morals. This type of guilt is usually accompanied by feelings of shame, embarrassment, or humiliation. Others feel guilty about their behavior, or the fact that they did not take action when, in hindsight, they felt they should have done. There are a plethora of reasons here and I’ll look at these in more detail in another post.
For the purposes of this article, we are not referring to a deep-rooted, emotionally exhausting feeling of guilt that is based on a traumatic or complex situation. No, we are talking about the sense of guilt that just ‘hangs there’ like a bad smell. There is often no real rhyme or reason for it, it just sits in the background like bad elevator music, playing over and over.
This kind of guilt is attached to our personal flaws. Those little things that you would like to be able to do, achieve or feel, but somehow don’t quite manage. This really is a case of the sum of the whole being greater than its parts.
How Not to Feel Guilty: Learn How to Say No
Feeling guilty is focused on the past and things that you did or did not do. It’s a total waste of time because the past is exactly that – the past. It cannot be changed. Sayonara, au revoir, auf wiedersehen, arrivederci. Done. Gone.
In order to slay the Guilt Monster, we need to change our view of the world and the way that we approach our lives and instead look forward. If we constantly allow ourselves to be beaten up by stuff that’s in the past we are never going to get on top of things. Instead, we need to look forward and take action to stop it from happening in the first place.
The kind of flaw-generated guilt that we are referring to comes as a result of the stuff that we did not do. Strike that, the stuff that we did not find TIME to do.
We are not bad people. We don’t get around thinking “Right, what can I screw up today and not get done?”.
No, we are busy. Simple as that. Busy and overwhelmed with the amount of stuff that we have to get done every day.
So, looking forward, being busy and overwhelmed, and not wanting to feel guilty anymore, there is one surefire action step that we can take to combat the guilt.
Learn to say ‘no’ more often.
Why Learning How to Say ‘No’ is Beautiful
There is no doubt that learning how to say ‘no’ can be one of the most liberating and empowering skills to master.
The guilt that we feel for not getting stuff done is often generated by things that we didn’t want to do in the first place.
Saying ‘no’ allows you to take back control of your life. It allows you to be the master of your own destiny and not be at the mercy of others.
We often say ‘yes’ to things because we feel like we should do – not because we actually want to do them. We don’t want to come across as rude, arrogant, or simply not very nice.
The issue with this is that it’s a time thief. It takes away the most precious and finite resource that you have. The long term impact of this is that you end up feeling guilty and like a failure because there simply isn’t time to get everything accomplished. We feel angry and resentful because we are tied up doing other things and not the things that we want to do, or need to do, for the sake of ourselves and our families.
Now, we are not advocating that we close the door on humanity here. But I am suggesting that by putting ourselves and our families first, we will be happier and, in the long run, more time-rich which we can then use to spend on worthy causes. Working and collaborating with others is important, but it should not be to the detriment of your wellbeing.
‘No’ should mean ‘No’
Many of us really struggle with how to say ‘no’ effectively and instead end up saying ‘not yet’ or ‘later’. This just leaves the door open and can actually be more exhausting and time-consuming in the long run.
In order to learn how to say ‘no’ effectively it’s really important that we understand why we need to use it. Once we are clear on its justification it becomes far easier to say because you don’t need to offer false reasoning.
Put simply, ‘no’ is important because it immediately gives you more time. It’s a strategic life decision in that it allows you to feel empowered and in control so that you can direct your energies where you want them to go and where they are needed. Saying ‘no’ can engender success. Saying ‘no’ saves time for you to say ‘yes’ when you really want to.
As James Clear accurately says:
“No is a decision. Yes is a responsibility.”
Crucially, saying ‘no’ limits guilt.
How to say ‘No’
It’s easier to say ‘yes’ than ‘no’.
There is also something about social niceness that has conditioned us that to say ‘no’ to people is somehow wrong. For starters, this is nonsense and this limiting belief needs to be scrubbed out from the subconscious.
It is very possible to say ‘no’ nicely and not offend people.
1. Ask yourself the ‘Now’ Question
The Undercover Economist, Tim Harford, poses an excellent question that we should ask ourselves:
One trick is to ask, “If I had to do this today, would I agree to it?” It’s not a bad rule of thumb, since any future commitment, no matter how far away it might be, will eventually become an imminent problem.
When asked to do something, no matter how far away on the horizon it may seem, ask yourself this critical question and use the answer to inform your commitment and decision making. Be brave and be honest.
Harford makes a bolder suggestion for those struggling to deal with the magnitude of this one:
“Adopt a rule that no new task can be deferred: if accepted, it must be the new priority. Last come, first served. The immediate consequence is that no project may be taken on unless it’s worth dropping everything to work on it.
This is, of course, absurd. Yet there is a bit of mad genius in it, if I do say so myself. Anyone who sticks to the “last come, first served” rule will find their task list bracingly brief and focused.”
Yes, it might seem ridiculous but it certainly helps to focus your thinking and clarify if you really should be taking on the commitment or not.
2. Just Say No
Don’t allow the other person to have any room to come back. Just say ‘no’.
You don’t have to be rude, aggressive, or make the other person feel like you are rejecting them. Simply say ‘no’. If you want to give a reason – fine, do it. But don’t make up a long-winded excuse that could trip you up further down the line. Be in control and taking the leading position. Be calm and polite. For example:
“I’m sorry, I don’t have time to help you as I have too many other commitments”
“I’m afraid I can’t meet with you as I don’t have enough time at the moment.”
“Apologies, but I’m not taking on any more commitments at this time.”
3. Be Savvy
People, either consciously to subconsciously, will sometimes play on guilt to get you to do something. That’s fine, but it’s not your responsibility to take stuff on if you don’t want to. Be strong and resist. Psychotherapist Johnathan Alpert gives a great example of this:
“…think about when you get a solicitation for a donation to a charity and there are forced options: “Would you like to donate $10, $20, $30, or X amount?” Another tactic: “Most people donate $20–how much would you like to donate?” This relies on social pressure.”
Do not allow yourself to be manipulated in this way. Remain firm but polite and think about your priorities. Do not allow yourself to be pushed into something because someone is deliberately trying to make you feel uncomfortable until you acquiesce. It’s morally wrong on their behalf.
4. Be clear on your role and set boundaries
When you enter a situation where you may be asked to do something be clear about your role and the expectations that others have of you. Have a predetermined view on what you can offer and stick to it. People will respect you for this and people won’t feel let down. Granted there may be times when you choose to be more flexible, but that is at your behest.
5. Propose an alternative – IF you would like to
Saying ‘no’ is hard and it does get easier with time. However, it’s going to take work and commitment to hone your craft.
At the start, you may find it easier to offer a more palatable alternative. For example:
Friend: “Would you be able to pick me from the party at midnight on Saturday? I need a lift home.”
You: “I’m afraid not – I’ll be in bed! But I can give you the number of a great taxi firm.”
Colleague: “Can you help me with this report? I am behind!”
You: “Apologies, I’ve got lots to do myself, but I can answer your phone and take messages whilst you focus on it.”
Remember, keep the alternatives manageable, otherwise there ceases to be a point!
How to say no nicely: Conclusions
Saying ‘no’ does not make you a narcissist or a bad person. Far from it in fact. Saying ‘no’ means that you will feel happier and have more time to give to those things that you believe are important in your life.
Practice the techniques outlined in this article and you will notice a difference in the way that you spend your time and a decrease in the background guilt.
Tim Harford referred to earlier in this article, reports that this is a skill that takes time to acquire and that his coup de grace focuses on the emotional attachment he has to his family commitments:
“…..every “no” to a request from an acquaintance is also a “yes” to my family. Yes, I will be home for bedtime. Yes, I will switch off my computer at the weekend.
And so from time to time, as I compose my apologetic “sorry, no”, I type my wife’s email address in the “bcc” field. The awkward email to the stranger is also a tiny little love letter to her.”