The Mighty Logo

5 Tips for Anyone Who Feels Guilty Saying 'No'

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

No. It’s such a small word, yet one that seems to cause no end of trouble – especially if you have anxiety, depression or another diagnosis. Many of us have an uphill battle to stay in the loop, keep ourselves going and simply get up and face the day.

For me, as someone diagnosed with autism, functioning and getting on with the simplest of tasks can become something that is so exhausting. By the time I factor in adding anything extra like work, socializing and forming meaningful relationships, I wonder how anyone else copes with anything in life at all.

That’s why the word “no” can be so problematic. Sometimes, to feel like a worthy and “normal” human being, I have to try and fit in and undertake some of the above. The trouble is, when your brain isn’t always geared up to know when you’re becoming overloaded, it becomes impossible to say “no” to things without feeling like you’re somehow a failure.

I mentioned in my previous two pieces about how finding love as an autistic adult and then going through my first shutdown in front of my partner were experiences totally new to me. I often worry about saying “no” to my partner or his wonderful family, especially in regard to social situations or ones where I might be expected to be more active than normal. It’s hard and I often find myself apologizing profusely for saying, “No, I’m sorry. I just can’t do that” or “No, I’m sorry. That’s just going to be too much for me to handle.” The feelings of guilt associated with that one little word are so shaming. Saying “no” makes me feel like I’m not only letting myself down, but my loved ones too.

I’m relatively lucky I’m able to hold down a full time job, but I work from home as a freelance writer and SEO specialist and therefore up to a point can pick and choose my own hours to suit me. This has its perks and downsides, but it also comes with a caveat. Because I’m self-employed, it means my workload can vary greatly week to week. I can either earn good money for not too much work or not a lot of money for a huge amount of tasks. As you can therefore imagine, it’s hard to say “no” to work if you’re not sure how much your next paycheck will be, or if the work will suddenly stop.

At the tail end of last year, one of the freelance gigs I was undertaking suddenly ended, and I found myself, for the first time in a long time, having to look for work outside the home. I ended up getting a job part-time in a school to make ends meet. Relatively early on, I think I realized the job was going to be too much on top of everything else I was taking on. There was a lot of pressure, and I’d been left generally unsupported by the staff I was working with. But I couldn’t afford to not have the work, so carried on regardless.

By Christmas I was burnt out, on sick leave signed off by my GP and experiencing depression and anxiety. In February, it was becoming clear I couldn’t go back there and I had to go in, face the HR department and say the word I’d dreaded when they asked me if I felt I could come back to work as soon as possible…


That was hard, especially considering I now had a partner living with me, there were two of us to support and we were going to struggle for money.

Saying “no” in that way was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. But I did it. What’s more, I didn’t follow it up with my usual apology. I simply set out my stall, told them why I couldn’t come back, stood up, shook their hands and walked away, and that’s the first time in my life I’ve ever managed to do it.

Is it possible to learn to say “no” politely? Is it possible to say “no” without feelings of guilt? I can’t answer definitively, but there are ways in which you can do it to ease the burden on yourself.

1. Accept it is OK to say “no.”

It’s super hard to do, but if you can, you’re halfway to winning the battle.

2. Never apologize for saying “no.”

There are polite ways of using the word without being abrupt. This is one I still struggle with, but there are ways around it. A simple “No, I’m afraid that isn’t possible,” “No, sadly I can’t commit to that” or “No, that will be too much for me to take on” are succinct without being unpleasant. When I had to quit my job, it was the first time I’d ever said no without saying sorry after. I simply said “No, I can’t come back. I’m going to list my reasons and unless we can find a way to alter the situation, then we’re at stalemate and I won’t be returning.”

3. Recognize using the word “no” isn’t about being difficult.

It’s about self-preservation and kindness to yourself. The only person who is ultimately responsible for how you react to situations is you. Therefore, you owe it to yourself to always be as kind and thoughtful to yourself as you would to others.

4. No one should try to make you feel guilty for saying “no.”

Remember if after you’ve said “no” and someone still pressures you, they are the one with the problem. No one should try to make you feel guilty for making your feelings clear.

5. Make your “no” clear.

Especially with regard to social situations! Make sure you remind them you are very flattered and pleased to have been asked and people should continue to do so, even if the answer is sometimes negative. To still feel as though you’re being included in something is hugely important, even if you can’t always make it.

It takes courage to know your limits, to admit them and to use that little word. If people don’t understand, it really is their issue. You have to be strong and have courage in keeping your convictions and sticking to your guns. This takes time and can’t be achieved overnight, but once you have done it a few times, it starts to become easier.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Pixel Embargo.

Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home