How to Say ‘No’ and Create a New Mindset

April 16, 2020

by Sue Belton


Not being able to say ‘no’ is an issue I see again and again. If, like my clients, you struggle with the idea of prioritizing your self-care over everyone else’s needs, then read on.


Saying ‘no’ is about creating healthy boundaries around your time and energy; it is not about being mean, or selfish, or disregarding the wants or needs of others. However, it can be extremely difficult, because we have a deep fear of rejection. If early humans were cast out by their tribe they wouldn’t survive and today, even though our lives are not actually at stake, we worry that if we say ‘no’ people will be disappointed in us, angry with us, or that we will have hurt their feelings. Moreover, many of us were raised to be ‘nice’ or ‘kind’, and to put the needs of others before ourselves, and these beliefs remain with us into adulthood. A fear of rejection combined with a tendency to put others first leads to a high likelihood of our saying ‘yes’ to everything. So let’s start looking at how you can begin saying ‘no’ well, and not feeling ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ in the process.

We only have so many hours in the day, and so much that needs to get done during that time. In addition, we often have long-term dreams and goals we want to fulfil. If we want to sustain all of this and live a happy, balanced life, we must take time out to take care of ourselves and enjoy it all (otherwise what’s the point?).

Sit down and prioritise – schedule into your calendar or diary, whatever you use – everything that you need and want to be doing. For example, if a nice long dog walk first thing in the morning sets you up for the day, schedule that in. If going out with your friends once a week makes you happy, schedule it in. If you want Saturdays to be a day set aside your family or loved ones, yes, schedule it in. Then, if someone asks you to do something during that time, you have a valid reason to say no – it’s in your calendar. Doing this really helps with any doubts and decision-making, and with any potential guilt. You and your life are important.

Don’t be afraid to rehearse: the way you deliver your ‘no’ is important. Research shows that when we make a specific plan before we do something, we are far more likely to do it – in the way we intended. So rehearse! There will be certain people in your life who constantly ask for help or to whom you find it difficult to say ‘no’. Start with them and rehearse a simple, direct (but polite) response. For example:

‘I really appreciate you asking, but my week is completely full and I can’t take on anything else at the moment.’

Because this is true – your calendar is full. You can offer a compromise – but only if you really want to – such as:

‘I’m sorry I can’t spend time helping you to write that article – but here’s a blog I wrote on how to get started.’

People will feel more comfortable around you knowing that your ‘no’ means no, and that when you do say ‘yes’ you really mean it and want to help them – this all creates trust.

You have also made a conscious decision and taken action to create a better life for yourself – and your loved ones. Be sure to celebrate who you are in saying ‘no’. Doing that and reclaiming your time is hard work and really brave. Acknowledge what you have given yourself – time, energy, space – to do the things that are really important.

If you really want to make a change in your life or break any old habits or behaviours that may be holding you back, you should try to understand what’s happening in your brain when you try to make those changes.

When you are trying to break an old pattern of thinking, feeling or behaving, you are creating a new neural pathway in your brain. I see it like a woodland pathway – in order for that pathway to become a well-trodden route, you need to walk down it again and again. When you are creating any new habit (for example, getting up early to run in the morning), you are not only creating a brand new pathway, but you are also having to resist the urge to go down an already well-trodden, easier pathway (staying in your nice warm bed). This all takes a lot of brain energy and effort. Change requires a lot of energy, attention and consistency, so when you don’t allow for that, you may find it hard to succeed. Here are some suggestions of how to create new and lasting habits.


Create space and reduce stress

Remember, your brain only has so much capacity each day and there are only a certain number of hours. For every new thing you take on, get into the habit of asking yourself what you can let go of. Aim to perform any new actions in the morning or after a break to minimize the amount of ‘mental load’ on the brain. In addition, take care of the basics – sleep, exercise and nutrition – in order to reduce stress.


Focus on the benefits

If you really want your brain to make the extra effort to create a new neural pathway, you need to focus on the benefits it will bring you. List the benefits, gains and pleasures of creating a new habit and put them up somewhere you will see them every day. Regularly reward yourself for performing your new behaviour – psychologists call this positive reinforcement. If the habit itself doesn’t bring natural rewards, add in an extra feel-good factor – such as putting your feet up and reading your favourite magazine afterwards. Also, be clear on the drawbacks of not making or creating this change – what it will cost you. For example, if you don’t stop smoking, you may not be around to see your kids grow up. When I was in my twenties, a doctor did this very effectively. He told me that if I didn’t quit smoking, as an asthmatic, I would be living in hospital in an oxygen tent by the time I was 40. It worked!


Allow plenty of time

You may be replacing a very well-trodden old behaviour of 30–40 years, so this will take time. Allow for this, be patient, and give yourself all the help you can. Create a system where this change is being supported and rewarded for at least the three months I’ve suggested. Schedule and monitor your new behaviour or habit – the same time every day is best. Be accountable – publicly via social media, or on a smaller scale within a group if that works for you. Alternatively, buddy up with a friend or someone else wanting to achieve the same thing as you. If you do all of this and the change is really important to you but you still feel blocked by something you just can’t identify, then seek some personal support through coaching, therapy or group therapy – whatever it is you need to make this permanent change in your life.


About the author:


Sue Belton is a former journalist and BBC producer. She has now retrained and is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the International Coach Federation (ICF). She trained with the prestigious American Co-Active Training Institute (CTI) and has been practising for the past 12 years. Her clients include senior professionals and c-suite executives in the BBC, Saatchi & Saatchi, Barclays, Ogilvy and Slaughter & May.

Posted by: Leah Russell


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