How to Say “No” (Compassionate Boundaries Part 5)

Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness     Nancy Virden (c)2013

“Just say no” was the campaign against drugs in the 1980s promoted by Nancy Reagan, First Lady of the United States.  Of course, why can’t we all just say no?

No to crime, no to medical problems, no to national policies we do not like. Okay, I choose to say no to stray dogs, kitty litter, and speed limits.

Swipe my hands together. Good to go.


It is simply not simple to say no. However, it is an option when people ask for our help. Here are some ideas.

1) “No” can be specific.  During one of the worst crises of my life I was told the following, “I am available between 7:00 and 7:30 tonight if you want to call me then.”  

What? Not whenever I felt like it? Later I could see the wisdom of that boundary, and the person who said it is still important to and respected by me.

(2) “No” can be realistic. Each of us is human. Fallible. Limited. Not a superhero. So when someone without a car asks for a ride, the answer might have to go something like this. “I cannot come to pick you up. Is there someone else you can ask? No? I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you to go.”

(3) “No” can be firm.  If you fool me once, shame on you. If you fool me twice, shame on me. (If you fool me 350,000 times, you’re a weather forecaster! But I digress).

We do have better things to do than rescue those who can or ought to be handling their own problems. Some people take advantage when we do not say no and mean it. I overheard an elderly mother say, “They just came in and took my good furniture. I had to replace it with cheap stuff I could afford.” She was referring to her middle-aged sons and daughters!

Perhaps a scenario calls for an answer like this one. “I know you are hurting, but if you speak to me like that again I will have to hang up. I would like to continue our conversation (or relationship), so please watch your tone.”

(4) “No” can be accepting.  Tunnel vision is exceptionally narrow when one is in emotional or physical pain. With this is mind, we can recognize that a person may not draw common-sense boundaries as they beg for attention and help.

All that mattered to me in the worst of my recovery from despair was that someone would reach out to me. However, what anyone gave was never enough. That is because I was sick, and not in my right mind. Reassuring comments, preceding “no” responses, were like water and air to me. The no was not as hard to take when I knew someone cared.

Helpful examples include: “I’m glad you reached out to me. I’m not able to help you in the way you are asking now”; “I have to focus on my family, but you are not forgotten”; “I get it. This is not going to be an easy fix for you and will take time. I won’t stop praying for you.”


NOTE: I am not a trained or licensed mental health professional. I am not a doctor. I speak only from my experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help can be yours.

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