You Deserve to Say No

By Noelle Sterne

Do you feel you can’t refuse the requests or plans of friends or groups? Do you secretly resent or rage at them? Do you feel they’re eroding or wasting your time, the time you may want to or need to use for other activities?

We all have such feelings. To assert ourselves for ourselves takes commitment and practice, especially without making enemies of cherished friends we’ve had for a long time or groups and activities we believe in.

Saying No, though, to people and activities that don’t feel right is our right. As we practice saying No, we gain a sense of deserving, empowerment, and freedom. We make better choices when we say Yes, and without feeling pressured, and we enjoy those friends and activities when we do say Yes.

Here, from life and my work with graduate students writing their dissertations (for which they must say No a lot), I share several ways to help you say No. Then you can say Yes to yourself for activities you love and value and that feed you. You know what they are (a few): painting, craft projects, writing, taking courses, baking experiments, car repairing, music composing and playing, exercise, plain old revitalizing alone time.

Friends: Just Say “Not Now, Thanks”

When you’ve made a habit of “regular” contacts with friends, such as weekly or monthly nights or days out, lengthy daily phone calls, and “quick” lunches that never are, the habit can be very hard to break. You need to summon your courage and explain yourself to your friend.

Explain that you are making some changes in your life to honor yourself and re-embark on a long-neglected project or interest. If you can relate your need for seclusion and concentration to similar needs in your friend’s life, like studying for a real estate license or training for a triathlon, the parallel could help.

As you decline, you can put the onus on yourself by saying lightly, “This is the sacrifice for my wanting to develop my project.”

If your friend presses, reply firmly, “Thank you, but no.” Rehearse in the mirror if you have to. Reassure your friend that it’s you and not her or him.

Similarly with rapid-fire emails or texts: I had a friend who relentlessly responded to my initial infrequent catch-up emails within two hours. I felt pressured to respond quickly and always received an almost immediate long, detailed reply. Eventually, I realized I was spending too much time and attention and wrote her (kindly) that my emails would be spaced out. I assured her, though, that the time between emails in no way indicated my lessening of affection. She got the idea, and we now correspond about once a month.

To soften what your friend may take as rejection of calls or dates, offer a bribe that’s an alternate: “How about having our call on Friday?” Or “Let’s meet for lunch two weeks from Tuesday.” Or suggest coffee or drinks at the end of the day, after you’ve put in some wonderful time on your project.

Groups: Just Say “Later, Thanks”

The strategies are similar with organizations or groups that have come to depend on your contributions. Giving your time to worthy endeavors is admirable, and you may enjoy the involvement. If you have been very active, your organizations and (other) officers may call on you for everything, and, you know better than I that, rabbit-like, one committee obligation breeds the next.

One of my dissertation coaching clients had a case of excessive involvement. Trevor was extremely active in his community. After work on Mondays, he volunteered for the neighborhood watch, on Tuesdays coached Little League, on Wednesdays ushered at his midweek church service and attended two committee meetings afterwards, on Thursdays met with the town voter registration officials, on Fridays tutored at-risk kids at the Y, and on Saturdays served dinner at the local shelter.

Trevor complained to me, not surprisingly, that he wasn’t making any progress on his doctoral work. I counseled him to start practicing saying No and to choose only two of his weekly activities, adding, “Promise yourself you can resume the rest after your degree is awarded.” We then generated specific scripts so he could withdraw gracefully from many of the activities for the foreseeable future.

Here are some scripts for you:

  • I really love doing this (volunteering, coaching, dishing out stew), but I’ve got to concentrate now on my project.
  • I’m SO sorry, but I can’t do this (volunteering, etc.) until I wrestle my project to the ground.
  • Maybe you remember how it was with your own big long, monstrous project. That’s how mine is now. I’ve got to give it my all, and I’ll be in touch when it’s under control.
  • Regretfully, I must withdraw from this (volunteering, etc.) for the next eight months [or the time you feel you need, and add six months] because of my project. I look forward to helping coordinate the Christmas pageant (or another appropriate event in the future).
  • As I resign for now, I know you’ll find a qualified replacement. I’m glad to give him or her some pointers to ease the transition.
  • Thank you for understanding. I look forward to resuming with you and the group.

See the pattern? Make your definitive statement, give your reason quickly without describing every wrenching detail, refer to a time frame that’s comfortable for you, and make a promise for the future.

I urge you to announce your withdrawal and alternate plans either in person or on the telephone, even though either of these options takes more courage than email or text. You may have to field a few questions or objections, but have the confidence that you can.

When They Really Feel Rejected

When others feel rejected and hurt by your No, they may become cruel in their disparagement, sarcasm, and sniping. Often their venom comes from grudging admiration and hidden jealousy that you’re actually acting on your dream project. They may wish they’d had the courage and gumption to do the same.

Your job now is not to let anything they throw bother you. A tall order, granted. There’s a trick, though, and it’s one of perspective. Keep telling yourself this: They needed to do that.

This statement may go against all your logic and the rage rising in your stomach. Realize, though, that the stabs of others are very likely not aimed at you personally but stem from something completely unrelated and probably very deep. I don’t mean to psychoanalyze anyone, but the causes could be their lack of childhood love and support, wrath at an absent parent, frustration at a stalled career, jealousy of everyone perceived as more accomplished, or feelings of unworthiness and too-lateness.

In other words, They needed to do that.

I suggest, too, you repeat a concurrent perspective: It was the best that they could do at that moment. When you realize that they needed to attack you for their own convoluted, unforgiving, transferential reasons, you can take in this principle easier. You’re not condoning or excusing them. Rather, you realize that their level of maturity allowed them to act in the best way they knew how. For more discussion of these points, see my book Trust Your Life (Sterne, 2011, especially pp. 130-31).

You can respond to their barbs in one or more of several ways:

1. Answer with grace and consideration. “Marsha, you’ve accomplished a lot too—look at your influential contributions to the town council.” “Doug. I’ll be the same person after my project is finished. We can still watch the hockey playoffs together.”

2. Reply with boundary-settling. “Tim, I don’t appreciate those deprecating remarks. If you can’t give me support, let’s not talk until my project is finished.”

3. Respond with silent affirmations.

I see you now, Bernard, in perfect happiness and satisfaction with your life.

I affirm for you, Lois, all good you wish for yourself.

You too have unlimited potential, Lauren, and I support you in it.

Say Goodbye to the Crazymakers

Sometimes, though, the lack of understanding and putdowns can get to be too much and, regretfully, you may have to let friends and acquaintances go. They are just too destructive. You spend too much time and energy intoning “They needed to do that” and fighting your urge to strangle them. Face the fact that they are toxic people and usually “crazymakers.”

Toxic people know how to push others’ buttons and “inject pessimism into every situation,” as Jessica Stillman says in “7 techniques to handle toxic people” (,

Much has been written about crazymakers in the psychological literature, such as their narcissism and their easy escalation to physically abusive behavior. I like master writing teacher Julia Cameron’s (The Artist’s Way) detailed description:

“Crazymakers are those personalities that create storm centers . . . charismatic but out of control, long on problems and short on solutions.” They break and destroy schedules (yours), put their own schedule above everyone else’s, expect special treatment, discount your reality (including your project goals and deadlines), spend your time and money, set others you know against you and each other, are expert blamers, create unfounded dramas, hate order, and, finally, deny they are crazymakers and turn the blame onto you (see Cameron, pp. 46-49). Any of this sound familiar?

An artist’s mother chose the night before his very first gallery opening to demand that he put up her storm windows (“Winter will be here in only eight months”). As a new chef was just about to test his original recipe for an all-important contest, his buddy appeared in the kitchen unannounced and pulled him away to celebrate the championship game of their grade school soccer team (“Hey, don’t you want to support the guys?”). A graphic designer finally snagged an interview with a top firm and enlisted her friend to watch her kids. The friend canceled at the last minute: “I had to get my hair done, and they didn’t have another opening for two whole days.”

If you’ve got to deal with such crazies, here are some ways to curb them (see also Stillman and Travis Bradberry, “How successful people handle toxic people,” Forbes,

Set your limits. The artist should tell the storm-window mother the task will be taken care of in a month.

Say no. The chef should tell the high school soccer buddy firmly, “Thanks, but no.”

Choose your fights. The graphic designer may have a fight on her hands confronting her fair-weather friend about loyalty and broken promises. Confront the crazymaker only when you feel you have time to get involved. Remember that it’s unlikely you’ll “win”—they always have another rationale and seemingly endless energy to keep the battle going. It’s what feeds them.

Become aware of and control your emotions. Hard, for sure, and it’s too easy to get sucked into the emotional drama, especially because they know exactly how to get you where it “guilts.” But repeat to yourself, “This is a crazymaker. I will not bite.”

Don’t let their negativity, judgments, or condemnations pull you down. You are responsible for your own frame of mind. Their toxic mindsets do not serve you. Reject them and replace them with your own optimism, enthusiasm, and forward-thinking. Remember that time-honored saying, by Bernard Baruch: “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

Recognize you may have to let the crazymakers go as friends, like the graphic designer. Know too that everyone comes into your life so you can learn and grow. You may feel sad to say goodbye to a “friend,” but remind yourself that you deserve the honor of true friendship.

Arm yourself with a few affirmations. Self-affirmations help set new habitual responses, and your brain actually changes when you repeat and believe them.

  • I am unaffected by their mindset.
  • I don’t have to win or reform them.
  • I deserve joy in everything I do.
  • I deserve friends who truly support me.
  • I now attract friends who truly support me and activities that truly nurture me.

The more you honor yourself and practice taking your stand for No and what is right for you, the easier it will become. You will feel better and your life will go more smoothly. And, almost magically, the more you say No and know you deserve to, the more people and circumstances you will attract who help you say Yes to what you love and deserve.

Noelle Sterne, author, editor, academician, writing coach, mentor, and spiritual counselor, has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues. These include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Fiction Southeast, Funds for Writers, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Rate Your Story, Romance Writers Report, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. A spiritually-oriented chapter appears in Transform Your Life (Transformation Services, 2014). A story appears in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Touched by an Angel (2014), and another will appear in a Tiny Buddha collection (HarperOne, 2015). With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for 30 years Noelle has assisted doctoral candidates in completing their dissertations (finally).Based on her practice, her handbook for graduate students helps them overcome largely ignored but equally important nonacademic difficulties in their writing: Challenge in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015). In Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. For more about both books and Noelle’s services, see her website:

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