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Saying NO to Friends: An interview with psychologist and author Susan Newman, PhD

September 19, 2007 | By | 89 Replies Continue Reading

People are often hesitant about saying no to friends but it might be the best thing to do.

Social psychologist Susan Newman, PhD, a colleague of mine from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, is author of The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It—and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and a dozen other relationship and parenting books.

Susan graciously agreed to participate in an interview for this blog about the relevance of her book to female friendships…

Why are women hesitant about saying NO to friends?

Women are raised to be nurturing and caring, which is a good thing up to a point. For many women, saying “Yes” is simply an ingrained habit; For others, it’s an addiction.

People think of the word “NO” as a negative and fear that using it will jeopardize a friendship or that their friends will think them selfish. Some women fear they will be left out of the group if they say “NO” or that their friends will think they are uncaring or lazy.

Women tend to be people-pleasers and agree to avoid confrontation and keep the peace. At times, saying “NO” is the path of least resistance, but the irony is that the fallout from a refusal is rarely as dramatic or harmful as one imagines.

If you can change your attitude about requests from friends to thinking “NO,” before you say– “Yes, sure I’ll do that for you. No problem” –your life will be a lot less complicated and pressured. It helps create boundaries and keeps others from crossing them.

What are the consequences of not saying NO to friends?

Saying “Yes” creates anxiety and stress and, in extreme cases, depression. Agreeing too often also can lead to overwork, to being overwhelmed, and to exhaustion. One of the real dangers in saying “Yes” to friends when we would rather say “NO” is that we not only become angry with ourselves, but start to resent those friends who ask for favors we don’t want to or really have the time to do. Also, if you say “Yes” indiscriminately, you may not have time for those you want to and/or really need to help.

Is it okay to turn down a friend who asks you for a favor?

Friends who ask favors with annoying frequency (and we almost all have them) are the ones you want to be wary of and learn how to refuse. The Queen of Favors, for example, is friend who has little regard for what’s on your plate; her main concern is her own agenda. You may have a Flatterer friend, the con artist who sweet talks you. She’ll tell you that you do whatever she needs done better. Another friend to be on the alert for is the one I call Damsel in Distress. She can be counted on to make a mountain out of a mole hill and her problem is rarely as horrific as she makes it out to be. She attaches to people who need to be needed and who will therefore be helpful.

You want to say “NO” to these and other friends who take advantage of your good nature and inability to refuse them. The activities that you built your friendship around (borrowing each other’s clothes, asking for advice, pulling each other out of a jam) may quickly become bothersome or even down-right unbearable, if they are not kept in check.

Look for warning signs that your friendship is unbalanced. When it feels one-way, with you doing all the giving, it is more than okay, it’s imperative that you begin to say “NO” to protect yourself. You only have a limited amount of physical and emotional energy and there are periods you can’t be there for friends without sacrificing your own physical health or emotional well-being.

What’s the best way to turn down a friend?

  • Always be polite. Use phrases such as, “Wish I could, but I can’t.” Or, “I know this is important to you, but there’s no way.” Or, “thank you for asking, but I have to say NO.”
  • Be firm and don’t offer explanations and excuses which will open up room for the person to keep pressuring you.
  • Don’t apologize; save the “I’m sorry” for the time you really do something wrong.
  • Don’t gild your NO with a lie or pad it with lame excuses. That’s counterproductive because in all likelihood you will feel guilty about your fabrications and that’s precisely what you are trying to avoid.

These approaches work with friends as well as with family and people at work. They will help you say “NO” in many sticky situations.

What’s the best way to tell a once close friend that you can’t see her?

People’s lives and commitments change and the reality is you probably don’t have time to be with her in the same ways you were previously. A slow withdrawal with comments like, “My life has gotten so complex, I can’t get together now” or, “I’d like to see you, but I simply can’t” should do the trick. Be straightforward and truthful. She will get the message and you will avoid hurting her feelings.

If you already have too many friends, how do you react to an acquaintance who wants to get chummy?

Try a positive approach: “I think you’re great and would love to spend time with you, but I don’t have a minute to myself these days.” Or, “I can’t do another thing right now. Let’s talk in a couple months.”

Should you ever turn down a “best friend?” Under what circumstances is it permissible?

Saying NO to friends is a right we have that most of us don’t exercise often enough. It’s one of the most liberating things we can do for ourselves even when a best friend is involved.

You simply can’t be all things to all people. A close friend will understand if she is a true best friend and you are normally there for her. If the relationship is open and honest, you do not have to always try to please your best friend to keep the friendship solid.

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Category: Creating and maintaining boundaries

Comments (89)

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  1. sharon says:

    An old friend came back into my life a few years ago. It started off as an occasional visit, then occasional spending the night. Then it became once a month, then more nights and unannounced visits. I was brought up to be a gracious hostess. To cook, clean and wait on your guests. Then came a gift, which they lied about the price. I tried to refuse three times and finally accepted thinking it was a wonderful gesture. I’m reminded at least once a month how much my gift cost. Meantime this person comes over unannounced, invited themselves to sleep over, invited themselves to placed I’m going. My health has declined, I’m in pain alot. Does me no good to mention this because “oh I know I have that also, I’m in pain too.” I’m at my wits end and want to give their gift back and put a huge locked gate around my house. How can someone who’s raised to be gracious say no

    • Amy F says:

      I think you need to think about the difference between bring gracious and being a doormat. You can be gracious and assertive at the same time. Remember you don’t have to apologize or make excuses for having healthy boundaries.

      If it were me, I’d call her and say, “In the future, if you’d like to visit, I need you to call ahead and check my availability. This isn’t personal, it’s a house rule I’ve implemented for all friends and family. I’m so glad close enough friends I can trust you to respect my boundaries. I’d hate to lose you.” Even if you don’t trust her to respect your limits, you’ve reinforced that she has to play by your house rules if she wants to stay your friend.

      About the gift, next time she mentions it, I’d say, “I feel the white elephant you’ve given me as gotten in the way of our relationship. I’m not comfortable keeping something so generous. Would you like it back, or should I donate it to Goodwill?” This way you’re taking charge, you’ve given her a choice which doesn’t include you keeping the gift.

      The reason I’d do the first scenario proactively, before the next time, is because it’s less personal and a general rule that may or may not apply. If you talk about the second case in the absence of a comment, you’re creating the discussion and conflict, rather than resolving it.

  2. Sash grey says:

    All the above who replied are right. I have a best friend. We are now in 2 far away places and only see each other every couple years. We only so much as drop each other a message when we can and also reply when we can. There is no pressure because real friends don’t pressure each other into doing certain things & we know we will always be friends no matter what. On the other hand I have another friend who constantly calls despite me explaining how busy I am or even just that I want time for myself – I don’t even HAVE to be busy to not take her call. She just has to respect a person’s space & boundaries. You are not married to your friend. Of course, help your friend, but once she starts calling you her therapist and thinks u are the go-to person to call for her broken toilet or husband problems then she is stepping over healthy boundaries – we all have our own lives to tend to.

  3. josie salmons says:

    My freind expects me, and anyone else she knows, to pay for her. Aged fifty, she is in debt to credit companies she got involved with to pay for her gambling, but her mother pays for her food, and has a fancy mobile as does her son, ok, nice mom, but…

    She tried to set me up to pay for a weekend treat, but I was blunt enough to suggest that she sorts out her debts. Reducing the weekly budget for them, takes longer, but is less of a weekly spend. I had to ask if she would pay me back her half of the treat, then I realized there was a sting. The setting up con is something some gambling friends of hers (not mine) do to some people they know.

    Although she claims desperation, she does not help hereself, just keeps paying out a fortune to creditors.

    • Sash grey says:

      There is a saying that true friends help each other especially in times of need. Sounds strange but to help certain friends you have to stop “fixing” their problems. This forces them to help themselves and when they do, you have “helped” them in some way. Ask them what they intend to do to solve their issue instead of constantly giving them advice (and they often don’t even follow it). Plus they don’t even realize their friends have their own issues and that those friends have given a lot of their energy to try and solve THEIRS. Some friendships last and some don’t. Don’t put it on your shoulders and open your arms to other people who do respect (and not take advantage of) you.

  4. Mary94949 says:

    My problem is a bit different. My friend insisted she wanted to come visit us at our new house. Great ! I invited her, then called the day of dinner (6 other guests) and she ‘forgot’ and thought it was ‘tentative’ so we agreed to reschedule 3 weeks later. Excited to see each other, as we haven’t seen them since Xmas although they live 4 miles away. So, dinner is this Friday, and we invited 4 other guests. Today I called to remind her, as they went out of town last week. Guess what? Her husband has another commitment which he can’t change. Only she can come. Now I have a dinner for 3 people plus us? Yuck. I know she’s a bit flaky, but — seriously?
    I was flabbergasted. Who does this? Now I have to uninvite the other couple who accepted, and withdraw the invite to the second couple. I feel like a jerk doing this. To top it off, she seemed nonplussed by her second screw-up. We’ve been friends for about 10 years.
    My sense is, I will invite her and her husband for a glass of wine, or when we have like 20 people coming, but not to a ‘dinner for 8′ which is my preferred setup for people I care about. Am I wrong to feel a bit insulted?

    • Candice says:

      Could it be that she only wanted to see you and you family, not other people?

      • Mary94949 says:

        no, because she likes to meet new people. that was the point of my having them over. I wanted them to meet some of our new friends :(

      • Mary94949 says:

        Mystery solved! My friend is very involved in relocating sooner than I realized. She was so busy that details fell off her radar. She called and we are back on for an impromptu dinner soon. Glad to know I wasn’t clueless and missing signals. All’s well that ends well.

    • Shannon13 says:

      Actions speak louder than words. If one of my friends were to “forget” about a dinner party, it would tell me: it was not their priority. I think your continued efforts to see your friend (giving her reminder phone calls, planning another dinner) show that you are more interested in seeing her than she is in seeing you. I didn’t understand why you would cancel a dinner party based on the absence of a person you already admitted was flaky–that seems unfair to your other guests. If you want to see your friend again, perhaps you could suggest the two of you meet for coffee or lunch. If she is unable to do that, then she really isn’t worth any more of your time, effort, or money.

      • Mary94949 says:

        That’s basically what I did. I still don’t think she forgot on purpose, she invites me to her house and she said several times that she wanted to come over. But, agree, effort needs to go both ways.

  5. Kelly says:

    It always starts with giving someone a ride to an appointment because they don’t have a car. Before I know it every week this person is calling me and asking to take her to the dentist, doctor, hospital, etc. I finally just said no because she never offered gas money and I am disabled and need my rest after work. She doesn’t work or do anything but see doctors. The other reason is she never was able to help me when I needed it which was only once or twice. I felt used.

  6. tyler says:

    thank you so much this helped me alot

  7. Lisa says:

    I have been practicing saying no and being more assertive in my communications. I have been feeling better, but really getting people very mad. My sister flipped out when I told her a simple thing that I could only talk for fifteen minutes(meaning listen to her endles complaints). She was so furious she hung up on me.
    Another freind of mine , but not a close freind blew me off and did not answer calls or emails or show up on a few occasions, much to my inconvenience. She barely apologized, and I forgave her. We had somewhat tentative plans to meet at my house. I tried contacting her twice by email and never heard not one word back, so I just gave up. On the morning of our “date”, she called me frantically saying she was on her way over, but didn’t have my address. I said sorry, I never heard back from you and thought you weren’t coming by, and I am in my pajamsa not prepared for any visitors now. She was very angry and said I was not welcoming her to my house and I was selfish and didn’t care. She sounded like she will never talk to me again. Could I be dealing with someone with a personality disorder? I can’t understand what the big deal is- we were just going to hang out and talk at my house. If I were that important to her, she shoudl have called back in advance. I did not feel it ok for me to be chasing her down with no response. She went on and on about how valuable her time is and how making plans with me was keeping her from booking clients and she was now losing money that she needed to pay her bills. It was a Sunday afternoon, and she lives at home with parents and does not have a w-2 job.

  8. Nancy says:

    I have a wonderful friend, she wants to come to my house and make dinner after I have major surgery, I don’t know how to say NO because I don’t want to hurt her feelings.

    I saw her yesterday and she meation it again, how do I tell NO

    • Sheila says:

      Nancy,
      When I don’t feel well, I don’t like to be around people. I just want to be alone to recover. It is nothing personal. Maybe you could tell her you appreciate the offer but would like to be alone until you feel better. If she is a real friend that shouldn’t offend her.

  9. faith 8246 says:

    I have a question. My supposedly best friend is always really busy, and I try to understand and all, but lately she has been forgetting when we set up to meet, turning down all invitations- can understand some because I am trying to be a friend to her, but she will not even sit with me in Church anymore, and when we do talk it always has to be at her convenience. I have been patient for 6 weeks, but after that I told her how I was feeling- that she never had time for anyone or anything anymore. She proceeded to tell me that she was really busy. We would talk later, so she could go unwind. To me, that just confirmed my feelings. Do you think I am being oversensitive? I just do not know what to do anymore.

    • pinkster says:

      Hi
      It may not b right but it soubds like your driend is going through a stage like I do everyso often that she just needs space. Not that anyone has done anything wrong sometimes I need to get my head around life in general and I get upset when it feels like im being almost stalked. Rather than think ur friend is being funny mayb think their could b things in her life shes working through and Is finding it easier to b a bit of a lone wolf. Uve most prob came across as slightly over bearing so stand back and b ready to give a few hugs and make a cuppa when shes ready. Sometimes being a friend means backing off but make sure she knows u r there if she needs u xx

      • Kim says:

        Faith, Pinkster is right. It’s possible that you are overwhelming you friend in some ways. I am on the other end of the fence, too. If I may give an advise, I think it will be best to back off a little.

    • Aventador says:

      I am going to tell you from experience to back off. If she is really busy, I could tell you from my own experience, she doesn’t have the energy for a social life. You are not her significant other that you should be demanding her time like that. She does not owe you that. When she has some down time, then maybe you both could get together, but give her some space to breathe. I hope since it has been a year, that you have been doing this. I don’t know how many times I had to tell my friend that until she got the message and then knew what it was like when she became busy and tired herself.

    • Sash grey says:

      Everyone seems to think friendship is static and don’t go through changes. As we grow older we go through a lot of changes with work, attitudes, principles and other aspects in life, so do our friendships (not necessarily a bad thing). The thing is, friendships should be EASY despite these ongoing changes. Friendships don’t have contracts stating you must call or see each other a minimum of times per month to stay as “true” friends. If your friend says she is busy chances are she is. It doesn’t even have to be work. Could be busy with family. Busy eating cake. Or busy having alone time.

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