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  • Frances Bilbao

When I say no I feel guilty

According to Manuel J. Smith’s book “When I say No I feel Guilty” (1975), saying ‘no’ is a basic human right and one that should be relatively straight forward. Unfortunately however, many women, and particularly mothers, find themselves saying ‘yes’ to things they don’t really want to do. This can lead to feelings of resentment and anger toward those close to them and a build-up of stress that can be exhausting.

For some this need to say ‘yes’ may stem from what is known as unassertive thinking and beliefs about what it means to say ‘no’. Examples of unassertive thinking include statements like:

  • People will think I’m unkind, uncaring and selfish if I say ‘no’.

  • The other person will be upset, hurt and feel rejected if I say ‘no’

  • If I say “no” to somebody they won’t like me anymore

  • My needs aren’t as important as other’s needs

Recognising these types of underlying beliefs is the first step to more effectively saying ‘no’. It is crucial to understand that these beliefs exist within yourself in order to change them. The second step is to acknowledge that these statements are not truisms or facts – only opinions. You have the right to acknowledge these opinions within yourself and also modify them.

Here are some suggestions for more helpful ways of thinking about saying ‘no’:

  • It is the right of others to make a request of me and my right to say ‘no’

  • Other people are resilient and can handle being told no. I trust that they can cope. It is not my responsibility to shield other adults from disappointment at a high cost to myself.

  • I am saying no to a request not rejecting the entire person. It doesn’t change my feelings toward them.

In taking on more helpful ways of thinking about saying ‘no’ it may also become easier to hear ‘no’ from others in return. For example, if a friend said no to going to the movies with you, you could handle the situation thinking:

  • It was my right to ask her to the movies, and hers to say no

  • I will ultimately cope with her saying no even though I feel disappointed now

  • She is saying no to going to the movies not telling me she doesn’t want to be my friend

Saying and hearing ‘no’ doesn’t have to be a complicated and layered situation with personal meaning that gets subjected to extended analysis. By recognising unassertive beliefs and replacing them with more helpful statements that are depersonalised, saying no can become the relatively straight forward activity it should be.

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