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How to Say NO When You're Feeling Obligated

Are there folks in your life that seems to always have a need that they expect you to meet? Do others make demands on your time and resources with no regard for what may be happening in your life? These are people you love and care about, so of course you’re willing to help them if you can. But it’s more to it than that: you feel obligated to do things for them, because you know there will be drama if you don’t.

Here’s a scenario that might be all too familiar for you: After a rough, long week, you’re emotionally and mentally drained. You’ve decided to use your Saturday to recharge by doing absolutely nothing—not even leaving the house.

Saturday comes and your agenda of quiet relaxation is in full swing. Just as you’re starting to regain calm in your soul again, your phone rings. It’s a relative, who lives on the other side of town, telling you they’re out of food and need a ride to the grocery store. Today. A knot forms in your stomach because you know they expect you to drop what you’re doing to help them.

You wish you could tell them “No. I can’t do it today,” because you have your own plans—hoping they’ll understand. But you know better. They’ll more than likely get upset, claim you don’t care about them, and even call you selfish. Not to mention, the second the words escape your mouth, you’ll be instantly flooded with anxiety and guilt, feeling as if you’ve done something wrong.

As uncomfortable as it may be, you know you have to prioritize your own needs and feelings. Otherwise, they’ll keep expecting you jump at their every whim. So here’s my advice for getting comfortable with saying no—even when you feel obligated.

1. Tell the truth

You'll probably feel more guilty about saying no if you make up an excuse. So for your own sake, just tell them the truth. But you don't have to give the whole run-down of what your plans are, or try to justify why it’s more important than whatever they’re asking you to do. Simply telling them, "I have plans today," will suffice.

2. Put the ball in their court

A good way to minimize any backlash that might come out of your setting a boundary is to meet the person halfway. You do this by giving them an alternative option for getting what they want from you. Instead of a hard “no”, tell them what other day(s) in the near future that you’ll be available. This shows you do care about their needs and want to help—but it puts the onus back on them to take you up on it.

3. Keep your emotions out of it

Despite your willingness to present a happy compromise, it’s likely they’ll still make a fuss. Just don’t take it personally. And whatever you do, DO NOT engage their negativity. Instead, try to imagine them as a kid acting out because they can’t have their way. In a loving and calm manner, simply restate your offer, tell them to think about it and to call you back once they’ve decided. Then end the conversation with a quick, “OK? Talk to you in a bit.” Click!

4. Give up the guilt

The thing about guilt is that it can cause unnecessary suffering. Feeling guilty implies that you’ve done something wrong. While it can actually be healthy to feel guilt in certain situations (as it can motivate you to change bad behavior), in this instance it’s the opposite.

Here’s what I mean: focusing on the needs of others to the point where your own needs are neglected will eventually cause you to feel resentment and hostility toward them. Instead of setting boundaries around your time, you’ll be taking measures to avoid them. Or you’ll be having irrational arguments and possibly saying things you can never take back.

To keep the peace, you have to stop thinking you’re being selfish or doing something wrong in prioritizing your own needs first (side note: I would argue that a person who expects you to jump at their every request is the one who is selfish). Instead, start believing that you’re being loving to yourself first, so that you can give freely to others and help them without feeling resentful of them.

At the end of the day, you’ll probably always feel obligated to extend yourself to help someone you care about. But someone’s happiness should never come at the expense of your unhappiness. By using this approach to honor your own needs and set boundaries for your time, you’ll find that saying no won’t only feel easier. It’ll feel damn good.

Now I want to hear from you. Do you find yourself saying yes to someone out of obligation to avoid upsetting them? Tell me about it in the comments.

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