The Sensitive Person’s Guide to Saying No

a sensitive person says no

HSPs, it’s time you start saying no to things that drain your energy. Here’s how.

I have no trouble saying no. In fact, it is one of my favorite words. No, I will not go camping with you and your 14 friends for three weeks in Antarctica. No, I will not do your homework for you. No, I will not attend the popular gathering of hundreds of old hippies at the Country Faire. No, I will not give you free psychotherapy. No, I will not volunteer 35 hours a week at your favorite dysfunctional nonprofit. No, I will not marry you and your alcoholic family. No, I will not start a business with your homicidal, narcissistic, bankrupt cousin George.

It has always been easy for me to say no. I’m not sure why. My goal is to learn how to say yes more often. But I work as a psychotherapist with many highly sensitive, rainforest-minded people who don’t say no when they should.

And that’s a problem.

(Not sure what a rainforest mind (RFM) is, or if you have one? Many sensitive people do. Individuals with RFMs are highly empathetic, intuitive, creative, gifted, and intense. To learn more, see my post, 12 Signs You’re a Highly Sensitive Person With a ‘Rainforest Mind.’)

If you have a rainforest mind and a difficult time saying no, then listen up. It’s time you start saying no to things that drain your energy. Here’s how.

Why Is It Hard for Sensitive People to Say No?

Why is it challenging for highly sensitive people to say no? There are a number of complicating factors.

HSPs are usually very good at problem solving. You may find an answer before everyone else knows the question. You might have more skills and could fix the issue faster and more easily than anyone else. If you have the insight and skill that will solve a problem, aren’t you obligated to do it?

HSPs often feel a need to be of service. Your intuition and empathy are highly developed. Shouldn’t you share what you know when it could make a difference for someone’s health or well-being? If you’re in a healing profession, this can be particularly difficult. Friends and relatives may expect free treatments. Clients may call in crisis. When you have a sense that a person could run into serious trouble if they stay on their path, aren’t you obligated to intervene?

You may have been told that you are blessed because of your gifts. That you must give back. That you owe the world because you were born with so many advantages. Don’t you owe the world?

And as highly sensitive person with an RFM, you have an additional challenge. You might need to say no more often than others. Not only will you be misunderstood because of your intellectual, emotional, and spiritual complexity, but you will also be seen as particularly odd if, for example, you choose a BBC documentary at home over watching the big game at the downtown pub. If you choose a trip to Powells Books in Portland over the Disney cruise to the Bahamas. If you choose a solo bird watching trek to Arizona over an all-expense-paid vacation in Las Vegas. There will be more times you have to say no because of your sensitivity.

And that’s not all. If you grew up in a seriously dysfunctional family, it may have been dangerous to say no or to ask for what you need. You may have been the caretaker for your siblings or parents. You may have learned that the only safe choice was to deny your own needs and to use your abilities to minimize the abuse. In your psyche, it could still be life-threatening to change that coping strategy.

When You Say No, You’ll Have More Energy

So. Here’s the thing.

Of course, it makes sense that you will be using your gifts to benefit others. That you would share your insights and solutions. That you would respond to your clients during their emergencies.

And yet.

You get to take breaks from changing the world. You get to construct healthy boundaries. You get to relax. You get to take vacations that you want to take. You get to say no. You get to be an HSP. You get to let others save themselves and come to their own conclusions.

In fact, if you’re always rescuing them, they won’t learn how capable they are. They’ll be dependent on you when they need to learn how to find their own way. It may be their appropriate path to make all of those mistakes.

When you learn to say no when needed, you will have the energy to address the most important issues. You will keep your own health intact so that you can shine your light more effectively. You will take the time you need to heal from your traumatic past so that you can be even more fully connected physically, mentally, energetically, and spiritually.

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How to Effectively Say No

If this feels too difficult, start with small steps. Set limits with your golden retriever. Take naps. Stop using the inadequate house cleaner. Assess future clients before you commit to seeing them. Leave the meeting early. Don’t go to the meeting in the first place. Let someone else volunteer to coach the team. Set up a chore chart so family members contribute to housework. Practice saying no to friends and family members who you know will understand.

Here are a few more tips to help you effectively say no:

  • Give yourself time to respond to a request. Take the pressure off when you are asked to do something by saying, “Interesting. Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you.” Then take your time and decide. How do you feel when you think about saying yes? Anxious? Exhausted? Drained? If so, that’s most likely a no.
  • Plan how to say no. Write it out if you need to. Remember that even if the person is disappointed or angry, you do them a favor by being true to yourself.
  • Remind yourself that everyone benefits when you have healthy boundaries. If you tend to be codependent, saying no will decrease any resentment or anger that you harbor when you inappropriately try to please someone else. Your relationships will be more authentic.
  • As an HSP, you need plenty of downtime to be your best self. Your sensitivity is not a defect, it’s your temperament. It’s your strength. Let yourself say no when you need downtime.
  • If you are a parent, it’s particularly important that you have consistent, appropriate boundaries. Your child needs you to say no when necessary. Your child needs to feel that you are safely and lovingly in charge. If you have RFM kids, they might be able to argue like pros. Be prepared to explain the why of your no, but set those limits when needed.
  • Ask yourself, if I say no, am I in danger? If you are actually safe but some part of you feels frightened, imagine that there is a child in you who needs attention. Perhaps your child self was hurt when he or she tried to speak up and get needs met. Listen to that child part, acknowledge the fears, and imagine a safe place for him/her to be while the adult you speaks up.
  • Practice self-soothing techniques. Use one of the meditation apps like Calm or Headspace to reduce your anxiety.
  • Get therapy if there is a history of trauma. Encourage your partner to get into therapy.

And, if all else fails, promise me: You will not start that business with your homicidal, narcissistic, bankrupt cousin George.

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