How I Found Freedom in Saying No During the Holidays

updated May 30, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)
(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

As a person who gets really excited about new projects and festive parties, I have a terrible history of saying yes to everything in the heat of the moment. While my enthusiasm has yielded some great outcomes, it has also resulted in me hosting houseguests I couldn’t handle, serving on too many committees to count, and forcing me to foot the bill for events I couldn’t afford.

But there is a power and a freedom in saying no, not yes, and it’s a power that we should all know how to tap into — especially at the holidays. Here are a few strategies that help me say no to the wrong things, and yes to the right.

A couple years ago, with a business in its infancy and a desire to have a baby, I decided 2015 would be my Year of No. Instead of saying yes to everything that excited me, I would decline any requests or invitations that didn’t really work for me or my family. I wasn’t always able to say no (old habits die hard), but as the year went on, it became a lot easier.

Now I’m expecting a baby right around Christmas, and for the first holiday season in as long as I can remember, I don’t feel like I have a long list of people expecting things from me.

Here are the things I learned to do (or not to do) in my Year of No. Hopefully they can help you have more relaxed holidays, too!

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Say No So You Can Say Yes to What Matters

Early in our marriage, my husband pointed out that I had all kinds of time to volunteer for my favorite non-profit, help my friends style their living rooms, and take on extra freelance projects, but when he wanted to go do something fun, I often had to say no to him. I realized that my inability to say no to requests for my time from outside sources meant that I had to say no to the person who meant the most in the world to me.

While I still like to volunteer, help my friends, and take on extra projects, I am also very aware that saying no to something often means saying yes to my husband and my marriage. And of course it’s a balancing act; I’ll often take on the extra freelance job, which helps me make a donation to my favorite non-profit, and still have time to spend with my husband. Plus, with a baby on the way, I want to be able to say yes to my immediate family as much as possible.

Stall (It’s OK Not to Answer the Phone)

I hate the phone, and unless it’s my husband or one of my sisters calling, I rarely answer it. That’s because I’m always worried that on the other end is someone who wants something from me. However, if you answer your phone like a normal person, and receive a request for your time, energy, or space over the holiday season, don’t panic and say yes just because you’re caught off guard.

Master the art of let me get back to you on that. It gives you time to consult anyone you may need to (your partner, your roommate, or even yourself) and may even encourage the person who’s asking to start looking for alternatives to your anticipated generosity.

Consider Your Reasons

Once you’ve successfully stalled the person asking, carefully consider your reasons for possibly saying no. If you don’t want your sister bringing her roommate (who would otherwise be alone) for Thanksgiving just because you’ll have to bust out a folding chair and mess up your perfectly styled holiday dining experience, maybe rethink your priorities.

For more difficult requests, saying yes may seem easier in the moment, but it can often make things much harder in the long run. If you have a really good reason (to you) for why saying no would make your holidays less stressful, just make sure you’re confident in that reasoning. You don’t need to go into too much detail when saying no, but offering a thoughtful explanation (that maybe you’ve even practiced) should help the person making the request understand. And if you don’t feel comfortable doing it in person or over the phone, send a well-reasoned, but not-too-long email or text.

Remember: No Is Not a Bad Word

Maybe it’s because no one ever wants to be on the receiving end of a no answer, or because we think a quick no should be reserved for toddlers reaching toward a hot stove, but no has become a word many people just don’t feel comfortable using. If my Year of No has taught me anything, it’s that — at least from a self-serving perspective — no can be a very positive thing.

True, saying yes to someone who wants you to come visit, help host a party, watch their dog, or have a gaggle of relatives stay overnight for Christmas might make someone else’s life easier or less expensive, but it could very well make your life harder or more expensive.

Adopt Softer Alternatives to No

My Year of No has made me a big fan of the hard no — along with a short, thoughtful explanation, of course. People aren’t often used to hearing it, and when they do, it really doesn’t leave much room for the person asking to try and finagle a yes answer or some other or lesser version of their original request.

That said, if you’re not yet comfortable with the word no, there are definitely some alternatives. Faith is a big fan of that doesn’t work for us, in place of a flat-out no answer. “It’s a softer way of saying ‘no’ that doesn’t require any explanation,” she says. For holiday-specific requests, it’s just not a good time, or that’s not going to work out this year can also be helpful.

Don’t Apologize!

If you, like me, are trying to eradicate I’m sorry from your vocabulary (reserved, of course, for instances when you are deeply, truly sorry for something), don’t apologize for your no. It’s often habitual to preface an uncomfortable no with I’m sorry, but if you’re confident in your reasons and have delivered your answer in a thoughtful way, there’s no need to apologize for doing what’s best for you and possibly your immediate family, roommates, or pets this holiday season.

Don’t Make Promises You Don’t Intend to Keep

Because saying no can be uncomfortable, people often try to close with something hopeful or positive; in an effort to soften the no blow, they will make promises they don’t intend to honor down the road. So if you tell your aunt Susan that you won’t be able to host her, her husband, their five kids, and their two dogs this Thanksgiving, don’t finish with, but we’d love to have you next year unless you absolutely, positively mean it. Doing so will make next year’s no even harder and more awkward. And you’re setting yourself up to really owe Aunt Susan an apology!

Have you been saying no at all this holiday season? Try it, when needed — the rush of relief and freedom cannot be underestimated.