Three Steps to Gracefully Say No

Adrienne Terrebonne

I am a recovering people-pleaser. There. I admit it. Growing up as the oldest child in my family instilled a desire to please those around me, and I understand this to be a common attribute of first-born children.  Even as an adult, I have often had difficulty saying no to others for fear that they would think less of me or that they would begin to dislike me. My difficulty saying no also stemmed from feelings of guilt because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

It has taken thirty-four years and a cross-country move for me to truly understand how to say no to people or commitments so that I could create margins for things that bring me life and joy.

Here are three steps to help you gracefully say no:

Evaluate what is important to you and your family.

It is important to determine what matters to you as a family. Maybe during this season of your life, being home in the evenings is essential to you. Perhaps you have prioritized activities such as story time and bedtime, so you prefer not to commit to activities that will take you outside the home in the evenings. Or maybe you feel it is important for your children to see you serving others in some capacity, whether it’s hosting people in your home or feeding the homeless once a week. When you determine as a family the things that are a priority, it is easier to say no to activities that directly conflict with those priorities. The next time you are asked to head that school committee or teach an evening class, you can evaluate how those activities fit with your family priorities.  If they don’t align, you will be able to gracefully decline without feelings of guilt.

Embrace your passion.

When my oldest daughter was a preschooler, I was passionate about teaching her to love music. So when I was asked to teach preschool choir, I jumped at the opportunity. I couldn’t wait love those young children while helping them learn to embrace the beauty and joy that music brings to the soul. I enjoyed teaching my daughter and her friends. But a couple years later, things changed. It was no longer a passion for me in the way it had been a few years prior.  Sometimes our passions change, and that’s ok. Take time every few years to figure out what you’re passionate about and look for activities that will nourish that passion. Be courageous enough to say no to things that don’t bring you joy.

Empower others.

For many years, I was involved in a multitude of activities such as monthly card games with friends, leading a moms group, and participating in multiple church commitments on top of working full-time outside the home. I was overcommitted and my marriage and family life suffered. Then a cross-country move eliminated all of these commitments from my life and it was glorious. But as I became involved in our new church and made new friends, I began to feel the old feelings of guilt resurface. I felt anxious that I wasn’t more involved. One evening, as I lamented over these feelings of guilt, a very wise woman said this to me: “When we commit to activities out of guilt, we take away someone else’s blessing.” There may be another woman who would be a great asset on the baking committee or a young mother who would experience a sense of fulfillment by teaching a children’s group. But when we agree to take on these responsibilities out of a sense of guilt, we often take away from someone else’s passions.

Saying no is a learned skill. It takes practice to gracefully decline activities and commitments. But when we learn to say no to things that don’t fuel us, we will have more room to say yes to those things that do. Be courageous, friend.

Adrienne Terrebonne is a wife and stay-at-home mom to three children, ages twelve, five, and three. You can read more at her blog,