Saying "No" For the Sake of Your Own Well-Being

Complicated by the complexities of identity disturbance, fear of rejection and abandonment, and self-esteem issues, I have pretty much always had a desperate need and desire to be liked.  I have found it quite distressing when someone possibly or outright did not like me.  I took it as the end of the world, and if I was feeling good about myself prior to learning of this person's dislike for me, my sense of self would quickly crumble, and any self-worth I perceived to have would crumble along with it.

Because of this, I would pretty much say "yes" to any request for help -- be it at work, school, or even with strangers. The distress that came with the possibility of disappointing someone else and therefore losing their favor was too much for me to bear. It didn't even matter who it was. Even people I quite despised mattered to me in terms of whether they liked me or not.

Perhaps this is because, as a child, I desperately sought the approval and love of those who weren't always kind to me. They were sometimes abusive and neglectful -- yet I desperately wanted them to love, like, and protect me.

Three years into Dialectical Behavior Therapy, I've been coming into my own more and learning and implementing ways to live more authentically and with more self-respect and care.  While I will sometimes still feel pressured by that little voice inside that says it is critical and detrimental if someone becomes disappointed - or, heaven forbid, rejects or abandons me because I say "no" to a request, I've found that it's much more in my interest to take the risk, see that it usually does NOT result in a negative outcome, and that even if it does, I can evaluate the meaning of it through Wise Mind and not let it destroy my day, mood, or sense of self.

I'll give you an example. I am a writer, and in addition to this blog and my two books on BPD and DBT, I have a very part-time small business that involves providing writing services of all sorts. In addition, I started graduate school in January, which is incredibly time consuming and also involves a great deal of writing. To top it off, I will be co-facilitating an online DBT group starting later this month.

In the past week, I've had two requests, one from a friend from high school (who I haven't seen in nearly two decades but am connected to via Facebook) and a family member to do some editing and writing. One was a resume, the other for a personal issue.  Neither offered money for my time and seemed to assume that I would drop everything to take on their requests.  While I often have done just that -- charged nothing and dropped everything to help those I care about -- I realized early on that this was not a smart business model, and I couldn't keep up with it.

I offered to the friend that I would do the resume for a reduced rate and set some boundaries up about how I would need to receive the file information and communicate with her. Immediately, I was overwhelmed with incredibly long emails and pressure to talk by phone, which I had already expressed was not comfortable for me at this time.  

I ended up sending an email letting her know that I realized I was taking on more than I could handle right now and would be unable to help her.  I took a risk that wouldn't have been possible  years ago. I would have been terrified that this friend of the past would hate me and never talk to me again.  Now, I see this boundary setting as a healthy limit that I had to set up in order to take care of myself, which is not a selfish thing!  Spreading ourselves so thin that we can't even get our own needs met by taking on too much helps no one.

By the time the conversation came up with the family member, I didn't have to beat around the bush. I felt a sense of confidence in having practiced being assertive and was able to say, "I totally want to help you, but I just can't right now. "  (Side note: the information that she wanted to share with me was potentially triggering.)  She began to interrupt, "But let me just tell you what it is. So, basically..." I cut her off. In the past, I would feel plagued by guilt and fear that if I didn't let her finish, she would hate me.  This time, I chose to take that risk, my Wise Mind knew it was very low, and choose self-care.

"I'm so sorry," I said. I know this must be hard for you, but I can't take on the project in this moment, and I can't hear this information right now.  She said, "Will you please let me know when you are able to, then?"  I told her yes. "Can I just send you the files now so you can look them over?" she pressed. "No, I'll let you know when I 'm ready, and you can send them then." "Okay."  And, the conversation switched to something else. 

Things may not always go that smoothly. Some people will not be as understanding and may be upset and completely thrown off my your response, especially if they are used to you saying "yes" to everything, even at the cost of self-sacrifice of your own time and health.

As you continue to practice the Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills of Interpersonal Effectiveness, you will grow stronger in your ability to interpret, prioritize, and cope with these situations.

My experience is evidence that it works!

Do you have a difficult time saying "no"?  If so, why? What are the fears around this? What are you afraid will happen?

Talk about a time when you were assertive, how it worked out, and how felt.

Thanks for reading.
More soon.

PS...If you continue to perceive yourself as being walked all over, you may build resentment, as I talk about in this post, "From Doormat to Bitch in 5 Seconds Flat."  It's better to notice and cope with passiveness rather than let it build up.


  1. Just discovered your blog Debbie and can't believe how much hope it's given me. I always thought I was so different and have struggled to cope on my own for years. Thank you for this and your amazing honesty! I only wish I had access to dbt - but I have your blogs and the workbooks so at least it's a start. Please keep up the amazing work xxx

    1. Hello Katie,

      So glad you found your way here! I really appreciate hearing about your experience. I want you to know that there is an Online DBT group that I am a part of, and we are taking a waiting list. Put Online DBT Group in the search box in the upper right of the blog to find it. I am excited for you that you want to learn and have already started by reading my posts and getting a workbook. Welcome! ♥ Debbie

  2. Hope is what I needed the most. =I always knew something wasn’t right with me, from the beginning and as far back as I can remember. I hurt. I felt empty, lonely, unloved, inadequate and sad. I can only remember as far back as about six years old, the year prior to my dad leaving and everyone else too.
    I started cutting at age 11 by scraping deep cuts into my arm because my brother-in-law wouldn’t share their deli store cheesesteak with me and he criticized me and made me feel shame and hatred for myself so I cut to make the pain inside overshadowed by the pain outside just to get a break from it all.
    After 27 years of treatment and a near fatal addiction to Xanax, I was finally diagnosed with BPD in June of 2012 shortly after my third suicide attempt in six months. I couldn’t take the suffering anymore and I truly believed I had to die to free my family from my burden.
    With the help of my therapist and a lot of work by me, I am recovering by using the DBT workbooks daily and monthly therapy sessions. I also do daily research to educate myself on this disorder and also find the blogs from other sufferers of this extremely challenging condition.
    However, the DBT therapy provided the answers I have been searching for and the knowledge that are many of “me” out there. I have a story to tell and it’s about the Road to Resilience and finally finding the answers and tools absolutely needed to manage this condition that others and myself battle on a daily basis. I have not been alone and I am not a weak link, freak of nature or a failure.
    As for now, I’ve recently lost over 165 pounds to date and just retired with my devoted husband, John, in Englewood, Colorado, after his service to our country of 23 years active duty and 7 years civilian tenure in the United States Marine Corps. And for the Department of Defense.
    I hope others discover these tools before they lose two parents, an aunt, a brother in law, three dogs, your home and your vehicle in 18 months. I hope they find help before they beg for help on a yard sale website for their shopping addiction to be offered nothing but prayer back. I hope they find the tools before two people tell them to “go ahead” and overdose. I hope they don’t lose hope.
    I found hope in the midnight hour of my life and I’m speaking out so others might know they, too, are not alone. We can fight this and we are winning.
    If recovery is to is up to me!
    Laura Jones

    1. Wow, Laura. Yours is a powerful story. Thank you for letting others know that there is hope based on your very own experiences. Congratulations for all of the truly hard work you've been doing to heal your physical and mental health. Huge hugs. ♥ Debbie

  3. I've a hard time saying no to sex, even when I don't feel right about it (I'm Catholic), so what I'd usually do is shut down and just do it. I think I do it coz I'm afraid to lose my lover (who, right now, isn't even my boyfriend)...he listens to me and tries to understand my confusion and mood-swings, so I guess I also agree to have sex with him to somehow "repay" him for being a friend to me. I know that doesn't sound right, but that's what happens. After sex, I usually have several minutes of numbness before guilt and shame kicks in, and then I feel like jumping off a cliff. I told him this one day and he said that it's just coz I'm Catholic. Maybe it's deeper than that...maybe I feel I need the intimacy, but maybe NOT from sex all the time, but sex, at this time, seems the only way I could get to keep him as a "friend"/someone who listens to me. Maybe I just think that sex is the only way he'd keep listening to me and understanding me...maybe even if we didn't have sex, he'd still be my friend...

    1. Hi Still shots. I believe I wrote about this very same issue before (very similar thoughts around sex). When we learn more about self-care and how to handle uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, I think that the way we honor our bodies changes. I am really impressed with your ability to notice and describe your experience and hope you can talk withe a therapist about how to work through these experiences. You're worth it. ♥ Debbie



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