Do you sometimes feel guilty for saying No? We feel guilt when we think we’ve done something wrong and we judge ourselves as bad for what we’ve done. We have all to some degree received the message that it’s wrong/selfish/bad to say No, and when we believe this idea, saying No can often lead to feelings of guilt.
A common strategy people adopt to avoid feeling guilty for saying No is to say Yes instead. But of course this can lead to lots of other unwanted circumstances and experiences as we find ourselves doing things we don’t want to do, in situations we don’t want to be in.
So how do we say No without feeling guilty? The truth is, we may not be always be able to. When guilt arises, it is important that we turn toward this feeling, and shine our light of awareness onto it, and hold the part of us that feels guilty with as much warmth and compassion as we possibly can.
It may also be helpful to look at what we are telling ourselves. Next time a feeling of guilt arises in you for saying No, try following these 3 steps:
1. Notice what you are telling yourself about saying No or wanting to say No
Write down the thoughts that are making you feel guilty. It might go something like:
“I should have just given him a lift to the train station. He does always give me a lift so I should have given him one. But I just didn’t have time. I should have just cancelled my visit to my sister”
Now there may be some valid points in your thinking. Using this example, perhaps in general you really are taking more than you’re giving in this particular relationship, and you are feeling discomfort because you know that the give-and-take between you is unfair and unbalanced. In this case, the feeling of discomfort is serving a purpose because it’s showing you that you need to change something to ensure that things are fair. This feeling can be described as remorse.
Remorse is different from guilt. When we feel remorse, rather than calling ourselves bad and wrong, we assess our behavior in the context of the circumstances. We accept responsibility for our behaviour, and can then take appropriate action to change it. So in the example above, a feeling remorse might lead you:
a) Acknowledge that whilst you did want to give your friend a lift, you said No because you also wanted to see your sister and that was important to you
and b) Ask your friend if you can come to some arrangement that makes things fair, without you having to compromise yourself by saying yes when you don’t want to.
In contrast, a feeling of guilt doesn’t serve any purpose other than causing you suffering.
2. Underline all of the “shoulds” and replace them with “could”
Should tends to imply wrongness, whereas could implies freedom of choice, opens up other possibilities and encourages constructive problem-solving:
“I could have just given him a lift to the train station. He does always give me a lift so I could have given him one. But I just didn’t have time. I could have just cancelled my visit to my sister, but that wouldn’t have worked as I really wanted to see her. Maybe next time we could leave early so there’s enough time for me to give him a lift and see my sister”
Notice how it feels when you replace should with could. Do this whenever you are aware that you are “shoulding” yourself, so that you create a new habit of thinking.
3. Replace self-judging thoughts about saying No with supportive ones
For example, you might tell yourself:
“I have the right to say No any time, for any reason, as we all do”
“Ultimately it’s good for everyone that I am clear and honest”
“It’s wonderful that I take such good care of myself”
“I’m doing really well at being my authentic self when I express my authentic No. It’s really healthy”
Changing the way we think about saying No can give us much greater confidence and freedom to express it, as does holding ourselves with love when feelings of guilt arise. These feelings do not have to stop us from being true to ourselves and saying No.