More than 20 years later, the memory remains vivid. My son was a Boy Scout and I was calling parents to help with a Saturday morning drive-around to sell tickets for the troop’s annual pancake breakfast – a chore most people on the other end of the line tried to make easy for me.

But one Dad said, even before I finished asking, “I don’t do that,” and slammed down the phone. Angered, I almost called him back to let him know. But then I thought, “Why can’t I do that?” Say no, I mean. Not the way he did, to be sure. But he left me wondering why I can’t take better care of myself by letting others know there are certain things I cannot do, and simply say, “No. I’m sorry. I can’t do it.”

That Dad was not at all nice. He hung up, I am sure, without a twinge of guilt or, at most, being annoyed at my intrusion. Had I done that, I would have felt a gut-load of guilt. Ever the pleaser, I cannot count the times I have made a mess of my life with over-commitments.

Like Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!” I was just a guy who couldn’t say no.
When finally confronting my problem, I went right to the heart of the matter – guilt. “What is that all about?” I wondered. I quickly discovered it was simply a number I did on my self; that no one made me feel guilty except me. Contrasted with the feelings of being both liked and a great guy whenever I said yes, the guilt of saying no became felony entrapment.

That discovery gave me the starting point for creating a three-step program for taking better care of myself when asked to volunteer or step up or to fill in or take charge.

Here is how the program works.

First, I ask whether it is easier to say yes rather than no. If yes, then I say no, if only to learn how to do so. When yes is easier, I am more likely to take better care of others’ needs than my own. That is not necessarily bad, but if the price to do so is too great, saying no will feel uncomfortable initially (guilt at work) but only until I realize it was the right thing to do.

Second, I ask the core question: If I say yes, how will it impact upon me and important others in my life? Pleasers may not realize it but when saying yes, they often do so to get more than give. Many pleasers are needy people who tend to look at the smaller picture (self) and not the larger one (significant others in their lives). I have learned that when considering those others at the moment of decision, I can usually shake off whatever guilt has me in an arm-lock.

And third, I ask when saying no, “Will I feel relief more than anything else?”  Specifically, guilt. This is the step that helps me sleep better and is the hallmark of a right decision.

Of course, actually saying no requires a certain sensitivity and skill, both of which are glaringly wanting in the dad’s response to me. Apologies are always appropriate. I have found most helpful, however, adding, “I hope you understand my refusal is not against you in any way; it’s about my life right now and all that’s going on in it.”

Saying no is not easy for most people. But saying it clearly – and honestly – is self-help in action.