When It Is Hard to Say "No"

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When It Is Hard to Say "No"

By Milissa Aronson | Boundaries

Posted: January 22, 2024 

A woman hiding her head and making a stop sign with her hand, attempting to set limits. Do you have a hard time setting boundaries? Learn how to become more confident at Magnolia Psychotherapy

Imagine yourself in this situation:

You open up an evite and are going to decline.  You may have some questions about the context, but for now, imagine selecting the “no” response- without including a comment to explain your reason for declining.  How does the thought of this make you feel? Did you tense up at the idea of not including an explanation? Are you thinking, “Wait a second. I need more information first” before deciding how to react?

OK, here are some different contexts. What if the invitation is to:

· A work event and you have a conflict?

· A work event, and you don’t want to go?

· A social event for someone you like where you have a conflict?

· A social event for someone whom you don’t like where you (phew!) have a conflict?

· A social event for someone you like but don’t want to attend?

· A social event for someone you don’t like and don’t want to go? (Pick your reason)

Does leaving the comment field blank in these situations make you anxious? Does your degree of anxiety change based on the scenario?

What if you can write something in the comment field? What are you writing? How much detail are you providing? Are you honest, or do you make up an excuse? Is whether you are comfortable replying without a comment or giving your honest reason contingent on the person, event, or your excuse?

Imagine it was a different type of invitation, and the RSVP required a phone call. Are you already thinking that you’ll send a text or call at a time when you know you’ll be able to leave a voicemail? OK, but what if that person calls you immediately after you send that text or voicemail? How are you declining the invitation? A simple “no”? A “no” with the real reason? A made-up excuse? Are you thinking that it would just be easier to suck it up and attend the event rather than put yourself through the anxiety of declining?

This isn’t intended to judge or criticize, and I recognize that there are plenty of situations where providing your reason for saying “no” is certainly warranted; however, I do invite you to take some time to question your “why” in each hypothetical scenario to gain some insight into why it may be difficult for you to say “no” and what may be behind your desire to explain yourself.

The Fear and Guilt Behind Saying “No”

An emoji bites his hands demonstrating fear. Does saying "no" feel you with anxiety?

Saying “No” involves setting a boundary, and boundary-setting can be difficult, particularly in certain circumstances.  People may struggle with saying “no” to an invitation for various reasons. Some of the more common ones are:

· Difficulty with time management and a general tendency to overcommit- Is your difficulty with saying “no” limited to social invitations or pervasive across scenarios? Are you the first to volunteer for things, or do others volunteer your time for you because it is assumed that you are “always willing to help?” Do people regularly ask you for favors? Do you find that you often go out of your way for people and rarely have time to take care of yourself?

· Cultural or family norms or obligations- What were you raised to believe? What was expected when you were growing up? Is this still the case? What would happen if you did something different?

· FOMO- Do you worry about being excluded or left out? Where does your mind go when you think about this?

· Avoidance of conflict- Does your concern about the other person’s response interfere with your ability to say “no.” Are you taking responsibility for their potential reaction and trying to avoid upsetting them?

· Fear of rejection- Are you worried about what others would think of you if you say no? What will happen? Does your fantasy of saying “no” involve the loss of the relationship?

· Over-inflated sense of obligation- This one is like cultural norms. Perhaps you were raised believing it is rude to turn down an invitation, or maybe you are self-imposing this for some reason.

· Over-inflated sense of responsibility- What do you consider your role and responsibility in the situation? If you were to say “no, " what would impact the other person or situation? For example, if you were to decline a party, would the party be ruined, or would the host not have a good time?

· Projecting your feelings- Are you over-identifying with whomever you need to decline and thinking about how you would feel if you heard “no”?

· Perfectionism- Do you need to appear as if you can “handle it all”?  What would saying “no” mean for that image?

The Need to Offer ExcusesAn emoji appearing nervous thinking "Please don't be mad at me!" Do you find yourself making up excuses to feel better about saying "no." Therapist Milissa Aronson can help you change this pattern and feel more confident setting boundaries..

There are times when providing an excuse when saying “no” is necessary, customary, or justified; however, when we struggle with saying “no,” we often search and cling to excuses to alleviate our anxiety and absolve us of our guilt. Our reasons for offering excuses when saying “no” aren’t that different from the reasons that make saying “no” difficult.  Excuses are driven by:

· Politeness or social norms- In some cultures, a direct refusal may seem rude.

· Fear of judgment or rejection- Do you worry what the other person would think of you if you said “no” or gave your real reason for saying “no”?

· Maintaining the relationship- In the moment, it may feel easier to give an excuse rather than decline, potentially exposing your true feelings toward the individual.

· Over-assuming responsibility for the other person’s reaction- Are you trying to be nice to avoid hurting feelings? Are you trying to avoid conflict because you are worried the other person will be upset?

· Perfectionism- Is it more accessible to say “no” when you can blame someone or something else?

How to Tell Which is Which?

An emoji thinking hard about whether or not she is providing an excuse when saying "no" because it is warranted or due to her own guilt over saying "no."  Magnolia Psychotherapy can help you figure out when you are making up excuses to feel better about saying "no" and become more confident setting boundaries.

So, how do you know when you are offering an excuse with your “no” because it is the right thing to do (either due to a norm, the relationship, etc.) or if you are offering one to alleviate your anxiety related to saying “no”? That is generally something for each person to figure out for themselves, but here are some things to consider:

· Is the reason you are providing the truth? If you find yourself making up excuses or think that your real reason is not “good enough,” there is a good chance that you are being driven by internal factors rather than the context of the situation.

· Is an explanation warranted? Go back to the initial evite example at the beginning of this article. Imagine replying to a party for a casual acquaintance where the guest list exceeds 50 people. Will you be missed at this event? Is this person close enough to need more than a “no”?

· Are you making other people your co-conspirators, even if they don’t need to get involved in the story? Are you making up fictional conflicts for other family members? Sick children? Work conflicts?

· Is your excuse honest, as simplified as possible, and offered with the minimal amount of detail that you would typically share with the other person, given the context of your relationship? For example, if you wouldn’t typically tell a general acquaintance that you are celebrating your grandmother’s 95th birthday, is it necessary to share it as a reason for being unable to do something? Would a simple “no” or “no, thank you” suffice? Or, if you felt that leaving it at “no” was rude, would a “Sorry, I can’t make it, I already have a conflict for that date. Thanks so much for thinking of me!” work?

Ways to Practice Saying "No" Without ExcusesA woman smiling and holding a megaphone announcing a firm "No!" Need help setting boundaries. Reach out to Magnolia Psychotheapy today

I can get into a long list of reasons why saying “no” and setting boundaries is vital for your mental health, but that is a different article. Instead, I will jump right to a few suggestions for improving your ability to say “no” with less anxiety without compromising or making up excuses for yourself.  

· Remember that you are saying “no” to the request, not the person.

· Ask yourself if you would be upset with your response if the tables were turned.

· Express gratitude for the offer while being clear in declining it. This will allow you the opportunity to remain polite and respect the other person’s feelings while distancing yourself from accepting responsibility for their reaction. “Thank you for the invitation, but I have another commitment.”

· Complement and express regret if it is genuine. It is okay to say that an event “sounds like fun” if the activity does sound fun, even if you do not like the host and would prefer to stay home. “Sounds like fun, but I can’t attend.”

· Seek support. Sometimes, we have developed a disproportionate reaction to something. Ask a friend for help as you rehearse, saying “no” in advance.


- Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation.

- Baumeister, R. F., Stillwell, A. M., & Heatherton, T. F. (1994). Guilt: An interpersonal approach. Psychological Bulletin

- Alberti, R. E., & Emmons, M. L. (2008). Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships. Impact.

- Morrison, R., & Roche, B. (2011). The relationship between low self-esteem and self-blame for a negative event: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Personality