Posts About Guilt

Feeling Good

122: Why Is it so Hard to say NO? What’s the Cure?

122: Why Is it so Hard to say NO? What’s the Cure?

How to say NO!

Do you have trouble saying “no”? Lots of people do—and it can sometimes get you into trouble.

In spite of many best-selling books on assertiveness, like Manuel J. Smith’s classic book, “When I Say No I Feel Guilty,” many people still have trouble saying no. For example, you may have led someone on in a romantic relationship because you were afraid of saying no and breaking the other person’s heart. Or, you feel burned out, because you’re always giving, giving, giving because you can’t—or won’t—say no. Or, you may end up hopelessly over committed at work, putting in long hours and feeling secretly used and resentful, because you don’t know how to say no.

Sound familiar?

In this Podcast, Fabrice and David interview Dr. Jill Levitt, the Director of Clinical Training at the Feeling Good Institute in Mt. View, California. Jill confesses that she sometimes has trouble saying no—to new referrals when her practice is full, to her family, who she loves tremendously, as well as colleagues who request this or that. David admits he sometimes has similar problems.

There are lots of reasons why you may have trouble saying no. Some are negative, but some are actually positive, including:

  1. Conflict phobia. You are afraid that if you say no, the other person will get angry and annoyed with you.
  2. Fear of disapproval or rejection. You are afraid that if you say no, the other person will judge you, disapprove of you, or reject you.
  3. Perceived narcissism. You believe that other people will lash out if you don’t give in to their demands.
  4. Submissiveness. You believe that your role in relationships is to make others happy, even at the expense of your own needs and feelings.
  5. Joy / Love. Jill confesses that she often says yes to this or that request because she feels it will be fun, or because she doesn’t want to let the other person down. One example would be baking brownies for her sons when she’s exhausted. One consequences would be giving in, but resenting the person she’s saying yes to.
  6. Guilt. You may feel that if you say no, it means that you are somehow “bad,” and that it’s your duty to please other people.
  7. Achievement addiction. You say yes to almost everything because you think this or that activity will make you more productive and successful.

Fabrice, Jill and David discuss many strategies for overcoming this problem, including:

  1. Empathy–as a therapist, you always want to start with empathy, without trying to “help.”
  2. Motivational strategies such as the Paradoxical Cost-Benefit Analysis, Positive Reframing, or even the Straightforward Cost-Benefit Analysis. This is crucial to find out if patients really want to change before using methods to help them become more assertive.
  3. Punting. This is a delay strategy that David uses to get himself off the hook when feeling ambivalent about a request. For example, you can say, “I’m really pleased and honored that you’ve invited me to do X. I’m going to check with my schedule and see what might be possible, and I’ll get back to you.” Then, he has a day or two to work up the courage to say “no” in a kindly way.
  4. Write down your Negative Thoughts. when you’re feeling compelled to say yes because you’re feeling anxious or guilty, Ask yourself, “What am I telling myself?” Those thoughts will nearly always be distorted. Then ask yourself how you could challenge and talk back to those thoughts.
  5. Fabrice, Jill and David also discuss how to say no effectively and demonstrate this skill in a role-play with Jill that is surprisingly challenging!

They also demonstrate the Feared Fantasy, a powerful technique to help patients say no, using Jill’s example. Her worst fear is that if she says no to colleagues, they will:

  1. Feel disappointed.
  2. Become angry and demanding.
  3. Will say they won’t work with her in the future if she says no.
  4. Will say they’ll get someone else to do whatever it is, and that Jill will miss out on all the fun.

David and Fabrice play the role of colleagues from hell who put demands on Jill to do another podcast and then get upset when she tries to say no. The dialogue is quite entertaining and dynamic, and Jill finds it helpful, though anxiety-provoking.

They also describe the importance of giving patients homework to actually say no between sessions to requests that are excessive or inappropriate.



Dr. Fabrice Nye currently practices in Redwood City, California and treats individuals throughout the world (but not across U.S. state lines) via teletherapy. You can reach him at fabrice@life.net. You can reach Dr. Burns at david@feelinggood.com. If you like our jingle music and would like to support the composer Brett Van Donsel, you may download it here.


030: Live Session (Mark) — Empathy Phase (Part 2)

030: Live Session (Mark) — Empathy Phase (Part 2)

After reviewing Mark’s scores on the Brief Mood Survey, the Empathy phase of the session unfolds. During this phase of the session, David and Jill will not try to help, rescue, or save Mark. They will simply try to see the world through his eyes and provide some warmth and compassion.

Mark explains that he had two goals in life when he was a young man. He hoped to have a large, loving family; and wanted to become a skillful and compassionate physician. Although he has achieved the second goal, he has felt sad and guilty for decades because of his failure to develop a loving relationship with his oldest son from a previous marriage.

While Mark tells his story, David and Jill encourage him to record his negative thoughts and feelings on a form called the Daily Mood Log, and to rate how strong each feeling is, on a scale from 0% (not at all) to 100% (the most extreme).

Click here and you will see Mark’s Daily Mood Log.

As you can see, Mark has many different kinds of negative feelings ranging in severity from 30% (moderate) to 80% (severe).

If you’ve been listening to the Feeling Good Podcasts, you know that negative feelings do not result from what’s actually happening in our lives, but rather from our negative thoughts about what’s happening. David and Jill encourage Mark to record his negative thoughts on the Daily Mood Log as well, and to indicate how strongly he believes each one on a scale from 0% (not at all) to 100% (completely).

You can also see that Mark is telling himself that he’s been a failure as a father, that his brain is defective, and that he is not doing a good job for David and Jill. These thoughts all involve self-blame. You’ll notice that he also has two other-blaming thoughts. This is not unusual. When you’re not getting along with someone, you may spend part of your time telling yourself that the problem is all your fault, and part of your time telling yourself that it’s someone else’s fault. As a result, your negative feelings may shift back and forth from guilt and shame to anger and resentment.

Most therapists would not interrupt and ask their patients to record their negative thoughts and feelings while they are venting. However, this information will prove to be incredibly valuable later in the session.

Jill and David ask Mark how they’re doing on empathy. If Mark gives them a high rating, they will go on to the next phase of the session, called Paradoxical Agenda Setting. That’s where they will find out what, if anything, Mark wants help with, and see if he has any conscious, or subconscious, resistance to change.