How to say no without guilt


Words Rebecca Ray // @drrebeccaray


No is a two-letter summary of the art of self-preservation: how we buffer ourselves from the demands of life, how we choose to distribute our personal resources and how we manage our relationships with others to avoid becoming depleted. In other words, self-preservation is the art of energy-saving, and the most efficient tool for doing so is saying ‘no’ when necessary. 

No is protection from too much. It’s space to simply be. It’s the choice to do what you need/want/can. And it’s a door that closes on one thing while opening up a ‘yes’ for another. What you say no to determines the room reserved for the things that matter to you deep down, because when we talk about self-preservation, we’re talking about conserving your energy to live in alignment with your values. 

We can’t give to others if we don’t give to ourselves. And to give to ourselves, we need boundaries. No is a boundary. “I can’t right now but I’ve got time on Thursday,” is a boundary. “Sundays are for family,” is a boundary. The purpose of a boundary is to protect your personal resources and psychological and physical safety within your self-defined limits. Don’t confuse boundaries with brick walls, though boundaries are not necessarily for preventing people from becoming close to you or a permanent rejection of an activity or situation. Instead, they are about the lines you draw around yourself based on your current needs for thriving. 


“Self-preservation is not selfish. It’s exactly the opposite – by taking care of yourself, you are refuelling your own tanks.”


But it’s not an easy ask for many people who shine with outward kindness. For those for whom giving is akin to breathing, making others happy sits atop the things that give them meaning. While this kind of altruism is admirable, it’s not always healthy. I’m not saying don’t give, but I am saying that giving beyond what’s available in your own tank of reserves is damaging (especially if it’s habitual) and will eventually exhaust you. Self-preservation is not selfish. It’s exactly the opposite – by taking care of yourself (given no one else can do it for you), you are refuelling your own tanks. 

Boundaries often require that we get uncomfortable in the short-term to preserve ourselves in the long-term. Where do you feel someone is taking advantage of you? Where are you feeling disrespected? Where are you feeling resentful towards someone or something but you’re continuing to offer yourself up because it’s ‘just what you have to do’? Doing what’s easy (in terms of yours or someone else’s comfort) is usually not the road to values alignment. The path of least resistance gets you more of what other people need from you without accounting for what you need from yourself. The responsibility for your personal- needs tank and for your giving tank sits with you. One of the laws of being a social creature is that others won’t respect you unless you respect yourself first.

Image  Andy Tootell  // Unsplash

Image Andy Tootell // Unsplash


Can we talk about death for a moment? I don’t mean to turn the conversation morbid, but it’s important that we reflect on the ultimate reminder of the preciousness of time, and that’s our mortality. Without knowing what the afterlife holds (if there is an afterlife), we can generally assume that we get one shot at this earthly existence. If you’re struggling with the idea of putting yourself first, let me ask you this:
do you want to give away your choices about how you spend your (one) life to someone who’s not you? 

Say no when you need to. Give yourself permission to rest or to cancel or to opt out or to not do it all. Ask for help when you need to. Put yourself first, so that the best of you is available to give to the people and things that will matter when you’re looking back from the end of your days. We have one chance. Don’t give away your choices about how you use it.


Self kindness ritual


Create restorative space for yourself by: 

1. Saying no to things that are costing you too much.

2. Saying yes to things that feed your soul.

3. Asking for help.

4. Taking time out.

5. Creating distance from people who don’t or won’t respect your boundaries.

6. Planning active self-care (the things that refuel your tanks).


For more advice on how to be a better friend to yourself, don’t miss Rebecca’s new book The Art Of Self Kindness (Pan Books, $19.99) and follow Rebecca on instagram

The Art of Self-Kindness.jpg

The Art of Self-Kindness by Rebecca Ray is published by Pan Australia ($19.99) and is available from all good bookstores.