You Have a Right to Say NO — Tips for Deep Thinkers, Perfectionists, Empaths, and HSPs

photo courtesy of yogi madhav, Unsplash

It is easy for me to say NO. In fact, it’s one of my favorite words. No, I will not run a marathon. No, I will not go camping with you for two weeks in Antarctica. No, I will not go to that month-long silent kundalini yoga retreat. (I live in Eugene, Oregon, USA. People here do these things.) No, I will not become your perfect-in-every-way child’s babysitter. 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 with many rainforest-minded humans (RFMs) who do not say NO when they should. They are super smart, highly empathetic, and socially responsible.

And that’s the problem.

Do you have a hard time saying NO?

You would think that you’d be capable of a simple NO, being smart and all. But there are a few complicating factors.

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

RFMs often feel a need to be of service. Your intuition and empathy are highly developed. Shouldn’t you report 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 so 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 that’s not all. If you grew up in a chainsaw family, it may have been dangerous to say NO or to ask for what you needed. 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.

So. Here’s the thing.

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

And yet.

Now, pay attention.

You get to take breaks from changing the world. You get to construct healthy boundaries. You get to relax. You get to watch mindless TV. You get to say NO. 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. (This is particularly important if you are a parent. It’s complicated for sure. But your kids need healthy boundaries, even if they can argue their case like mini-lawyers.)

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

You see?

If this feels too difficult, start with small steps. Set limits with your golden retriever. Take naps. Stop using the inadequate house cleaner. Assess clients before you commit to seeing them.   Leave the meeting early. Don’t go to the meeting. Let someone else volunteer to coach the team. Set up a chore chart so family members contribute to housework. Learn to take the pressure off when you’re asked to do something, by saying, “Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.” Get therapy if there’s a history of trauma. Get your partner into therapy.

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

(For the more advanced course, look for You Have a Right to Say F*ck No, coming soon.)


To my bloggEEs: Do you have trouble saying NO to people? Have you felt responsible for helping, healing, or saving souls? Are you learning how to set limits and have healthy boundaries? How are you making a contribution but not burning yourself out? What do you need to say NO to?

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Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

47 responses to “You Have a Right to Say NO — Tips for Deep Thinkers, Perfectionists, Empaths, and HSPs”

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  1. Are You Too Much Or Are You Just A Lot? – YOUR RAINFOREST MIND

    […] vary. Some of you will need to understand your sensitivities and empathy and find tools to build healthy boundaries so you are less overwhelmed by other humans and their emotions, their suffering, or their […]

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    […] you want to help, to be of service. But it is tricky. You might not know when to stop or how to set appropriate boundaries. And if your empathy is extensive, you likely have a strong intuitive sense as well. An in-depth […]

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    […] ~ Practice setting boundaries. Start with easy people and situations, if this is particularly hard, which it may be if it was dangerous in your family to express your needs. Learn to say no. And in some cases, hell no. […]

  7. Paula Prober Avatar
    Paula Prober

    Makes sense, Over Soil. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Over Soil Avatar
    Over Soil

    This tastes about right, seasoned well I have digested it, but saying yes or no is always going to be subjective and in the moment for this empath.

  9. You Have a Right to Say NO — Tips for Deep Thinkers, Perfectionists, Empaths, and HSPs | Living Small in a Big World

    […] This timely post really makes me stop and think: You Have a Right to Say NO — Tips for Deep Thinkers, Perfectionists, Empaths, and HSPs […]

  10. spicejac Avatar

    You get to take breaks from changing the world. You get to construct healthy boundaries. You get to relax. You get to watch mindless TV. You get to say NO

    These lines really resonate with me today – thank you for this post, and for making me aware that I am the one responsible for my own boundary setting. Thank you!

    1. Jay Fizzer Avatar
      Jay Fizzer

      Hi Paula! I’ve read your blog for so long, and I still remember the first moment when I found your blog, “This is it – a place where I belong to”.

      And you kept mentioning about being emphatic, highly sensitive, high EQ – which make me a little bit puzzled.

      The thing is, what is actually emotional intelligence? I do think that my emotions are just ‘strange’. Sometimes I feel too much empathy, sometimes I don’t feel anything at all. For example, I can cry by watching a video about authorities who did illegal crimes (human trafficking etc), but I just can’t feel anything when I saw a video about a man who passed away after fighting the disease he had, if I do emphatize, it tends to be for different reasons. I don’t emphatize for the sake of emphatizing itself, I emphatize for the sake of defending the truths/rationals/principles.

      So could you explain to me, about EQ with more details ? Am I experiencing normal feelings?

      I really hope that you understand what I’m trying to convey here because I’m not able to elaborate it precisely.

      Thank you.

      On Tue, Mar 19, 2019, 10:31 AM Your Rainforest Mind wrote:

      > spicejac commented: “You get to take breaks from changing the world. You > get to construct healthy boundaries. You get to relax. You get to watch > mindless TV. You get to say NO These lines really resonate with me today – > thank you for this post, and for making me aware that” >

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        I’m not exactly sure what you’re saying here, Jay. But empathy doesn’t have to look the same for everyone. Here’s a post that might help:

  11. Bianca Roxas Avatar
    Bianca Roxas

    Sometimes my way of taking a break is also a way to help people out. Writing stories like science fictions that have accurate physics, or making art that’s a metaphor to philosophy and cultural issues here helps my brain turn off a little as much as it can help other people find some thought provoking ideas on social media as I go on. It’s hitting two birds with one stone.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Great idea, Bianca! Thank you.

  12. Vanilla Avatar

    NO. It’s not hard for me to say so–
    if people invite me to a party or gathering. But when it comes to..
    “Can you help me with this work?” YES.
    “Can you teach me xxx?” Yes. “Can you help her? She can’t walk properly” Of course! “Can you help me to design a logo?” Yes, sure..”Can you draw this?!!” -it takes hours to finish…but..umm YES-

    It’s always a Yes for me if I can use my gift to help people, it’s a sign of being grateful for what God has given to me.

    (Well you see, if I were refusing all of them, I might feel useless, worthless, and so on. //(don’t worry, I’ve learned to say ‘no’ if I find no time in my hand to spend with myself)

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, that’s another reason for saying yes, isn’t it? You feel worthwhile and useful. Thanks, Vanilla.

  13. renovatio06 Avatar

    Have I felt that, been there, done that? Absolutely! I guess, the “trick” is or was – no, still is… – to stop laying that (learned) guilt trip on myself for simply heeding my needs and being self-CARING and thus acting reasonably in regards to myself and my own needs. When you grow up with narcissists, they’ll have you feeling “bad” simply for HAVING NEEDS in the first place. Breaking free from that vicious cycle of blaming myself for actually NOTHING and thus accepting that others _might_ be disappoointed from my behavior WIHTOUT inheriting the inherent guilt trip they lay on you… is a humdigger, I will admit that (and it comes at major discomfort in the beginning, which I had to address by constantly feeding messages of loving support to my inner child/children). And yet for me, this is the exact KEY to breaking FREE and getting to live a self-directed life: THEIR being disappointed does NOT have to be MY problem – as they are free to find their own solution and actually… might become aware of their own needs for the first tme and receive an opportunity of doing something for themselves and on THEIR OWN.

    Did any of it make sense ….? 😉 (I had to learn for it to make sense to me, though… 😉 )

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      This makes TOTAL sense, renovatio06. Give those inner kids a hug for me. This description will be helpful to many. Thank you.

  14. Antarmukhi Avatar

    Thank you for yet another wonderful post Paula! Reading it reminded me of my father’s words when I was in high school, “what use is your intelligence if it is not used in service of others?” I think for years this influenced my actions and my feelings about myself. Today I remind myself I have a right to my needs. It sometimes is a struggle, yet I stay on it.
    What has helped me the most to say ‘no’ is strangely yoga and being in touch with what I notice in my body. Yoga helped me listen to my body, hence my feelings and need. It’s much easier to draw boundaries that are respectful of me and of others.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      It’s actually not surprising that you take cues from your body, Antarmukhi. It’s an important way to determine what you need.

  15. Pecheoiseau Avatar

    If you’re the office (or classroom) Hermione Granger, here is a practice for you. Even if you could help the other person in the cube farm (classroom) with their idle question (My inner monologue: “OMFG, just Google it!!!”), just sit on your hands. If they ask you directly if you can help, maybe you can choose to help. I’m not good at playing dumb so I would probably help–your mileage may vary. You could say you’re busy–important report due or whatever. But if you’re always jumping in with the unsolicited solution–just stop. See what happens. It’s likely they don’t value your contributions anyway, or tease you about them–“That’s why we keep you around” is something I heard once, in regards to my head full of useless trivia. If someone would be endangered or if something would go terribly wrong if you don’t speak up, please say something. But try giving yourself permission to not help everybody with everything. It gets easier with time and makes saying “No” in other contexts much easier.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks for your experienced advice, Pecheoiseau.

    2. Dr. Dad Avatar
      Dr. Dad

      It’s also useful to remember that people are clever in different ways: you might be clever at having all the right answers, while someone else might be clever at getting credit for it. Focusing on information to the exclusion of relationships is not a good road to advancement.

      1. renovatio06 Avatar

        b.t.w. really original user name, the “peach bird” . How did you come up with that? Certainly makes for an original nom de plume 🙂

    3. renovatio06 Avatar

      Ha, Pecheoiseau – “OMFG, just GOOGLE it!” Perfect, LOL! And excellent suggestion to start by curbing that helping reflex even if it made us gag for so violently going against our first impulse, makes total sense to me, perfect! Though it is still something I struggle with, I found that being too accommodating all the time is almost like an invitation for being taken advantage of or even leading to (emotional or other) abuse or simply becoming like a “toy to kill some time” for the (neuro–) non-diverse ones. Strangely, “they”‘ll respect you more the less often you jump in to “save the day”. I still find it really hard and even sometimes depressing to have to go against this. On the other hand… when you’ve given your most well thought out and complex help away for free and discover how little it is appreciated or even being mistinterpreted as being grandiose… I guess at some point the realization kicks in that this simply never worked and that the energy spent might as well be channeled into trying out a new behaviour. Might even get fun like that “sitting on your hands” – I actually had to chuckle when reading it 🙂 Thanks! 😀

  16.  Avatar

    Do I really get to watch mindless TV though?

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Well, yes. Just not tooooo much. And you can knit at the same time, if you still need to be productive. 🙂

  17. Arachne Avatar

    “No” is difficult to me not only for the reasons you list, but also because I genuinely want to do… so many things. So I say yes to all of those things that I really want to do. Plus yes to all the things I don’t want to do, but fell like I SHOULD (because adulting), and then I go home and I’m like. WAIT. I can’t physically go to dance class (three of them), and D&D, and babysit, and help mom shop, and do my laundry, and edit friend x’s book, and catch up over coffee with y, and take z out for their birthday… all on Saturday afternoon. Not without Hermione’s Time-Turner, anyway. So then when I do say no, it’s usually only after I say yes once, or after I spend a few days working up the gumption to justify to myself that ‘no’ is ok. Because I always either want to, and/or feel I should, so saying no usually makes me feel terrible. 🙁

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, thank you, Arachne. I did leave that part out. But, yes. Difficulty saying NO because of all the things you WANT to do. Of course.

  18. Nimue Brown Avatar
    Nimue Brown

    Is the F*ck No course a book? really hoping it’s a book, and realising how much i need a book like that right now.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Ha! Sorry, Nimue, it’s not a book. Not even really a course… But maybe I’ll write another post with some more ideas. 🙂

  19. steffanbard Avatar

    Boundaries are something I’ve thought about a lot. The bind I find myself in, despite having exquisite self-awareness into these patterns and the pitfalls of not saying no, having weak boundaries, codependency etc., is the question of “If I am going to say no to what doesn’t meet my needs then where/how am I going to find something that actually does?” To me, that is the core of the conundrum.

    Additionally, if our basic human (gifted) needs have never (or seldom) been adequately met, on what basis do we have (developmentally) to discern between the alternatives? Also if our needs have never been adequately met in major ways then we may also lack the sense of worthiness from which to discern from. It’s hard to be picky when you’re constantly starving or when you’ve had to accept that a low-grade starvation is your baseline.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      These are wonderful thought-provoking questions, Steffan. I shall take some time to think about them. The post is more focused on people who don’t say no to helping others, when it’s at their own expense. The sense of responsibility to “save the world.” It’s less about saying no to what doesn’t meet their needs. That said, it sounds like you’re saying that you need to make choices that aren’t ideal for you because it’s been impossible to find satisfaction among, I assume, people and activities, due to your high level of giftedness. Then, you bring up the pain of unworthiness when early basic needs have not been met. That one, I can respond to, with my psychotherapist hat. When needs have not been met by parents in major ways, a deep, careful, sensitive therapy process can help. And I get that finding the therapist is not easy. But it’s worth the search once you do. The healing that can happen, over time, can then provide an opening for you to find people and activities that do meet your needs. Thank you for writing Steffan.

      1. steffanbard Avatar

        Thanks Paula. Y’know, I wonder if they are connected? I wonder if gifted people are prone to caretaking on the basis of trying to give others what they themselves lack. That is, caretaking could be a method of coping with having one’s own needs chronically unmet (isn’t that how codependency forms, from significant unmet childhood needs?) – hoping, in some manner, that if one gives enough to others (which is also an attempt to assuage the sense of unworthiness, guilt and shame that came from not having one’s needs met growing up) then maybe then others will finally give back. The problem with that strategy is that there isn’t the differentiation or self-knowledge necessary to realize that no matter how much others may want to give back to us and meet our needs like we meet theirs, they simply don’t have the capacities to do so in the ways we deeply long for.

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          Absolutely, Steffan. Actually, I think you don’t have to be gifted to exhibit that behavior. I think many people give to others in an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to get something back from them. The difference I see is, like you say, for the gifted, it’s hard to find someone with a deep/large enough capacity to reciprocate in a way that is satisfying or truly nourishing.

    2. renovatio06 Avatar

      “… when you’ve had to accept that a low–grade starvation is your baseline.” Brilliant thinking and wording, Steffan! And it can get really isolating when coming from that background (as I do, which will not be hard to “guess”). And I also think that an initially lacking or unnourished sense of self–worth/self–esteem is closely associated with that undeveloped sense of discernment as you say or even at the root of it, very possibly.

      I seem to have found that for self–worth we’re likely best advised to find a way of giving that to ourselves and _by_ ourselves – or at first from someone who has really our best interest at heart, like a good therapist for example. (when we’ve truly accomplished a healthy and authentic self esteem, it will come from “outside” very naturally and probably initially leave you wondering “wth, why _now_ and _how_?” and so on). But pain and possibly (externally imposed) guilt may present major obstacles on that journey, I’m aware. So I don’t have a recipé (and I’m not a health or wellbeing professional like e.g. Paula or other therapists). What seems to have worked for me is confronting my fears almost brutally and getting myself into situations that seemed almost overwhelming in the beginning, fuelled by and helped with some (healthy, I guess) anger, even rage, as in “show you right how… lacking of….” [insert degrading feedback from former environment or attachment figures] “I am!” That’s a bit of a crude summation, but I guess you get the idea. The more often I came away with positive results, the more my self esteem grew and then at some point, it’s not about proving anything to anyone anymore and you can transition into a healthier mode of discernment whether any given situation presents an opportunity for growth or is simply… stressful and unrewarding 😉

      Like I said, I don’t have a recipé nor do I think that gifted (rainforest) people would be inclined to accept one and much rather find out on their terms and time. Just had my 2 cents laying around and your phrase which I quoted struck a chord in me that I felt playing around with for a moment. I like that observation and the ensuing thread between you and Paula. Also, the “giving until (emotionally) burnt out” is another possible pitfall and tragic reiteration of the initial injuries. Really tricky territory, I completely agree. (and at times… painful, can’t make any bones about it, either). Thanks lady and gent!

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, renovatio06. Are you digging around in older posts?? 🙂

        1. renovatio06 Avatar

          Not actively, Paula. It was linked to in one of your recent blog posts and I kind of brushed up on it and followed the thread once more. Not really meaning to go around in circles 😉

          1. Paula Prober Avatar
            Paula Prober

            Oh, I think it can make sense to revisit old posts. I was reading one the other day! It was fun. 🙂

            1. renovatio06 Avatar

              Yup, like I said: Brushing up and reminding myself of it like I did. 🙂 Thanks! Always!

  20. ewf706 Avatar

    You have only been on my radar for about three weeks but, jeeeeessssuuuusssss, your knowledge is completely applicable to me. I promise to remain an eager reader!!

    Thanks, Billy Freberg

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Happy to have another eager reader! Welcome, Billy.

  21. maggiebrown2015 Avatar

    So I’m cancelling our reservation for the 10 day all inclusive party boat cruise??

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Um, yeah. 🙂

  22. M. J. Cuthbertson Avatar
    M. J. Cuthbertson

    Long time fan of Bartleby, the Scrivener and that most perfect line, “I would prefer not to.“

    1. bethplanetbethcom Avatar

      This resonates very deeply for me, thank you so much, Paula! You describe me to a ‘T’ …. I DO feel a need to be of service, and I AM highly empathetic, and my ability to sense what someone needs must feel clairvoyant to them. In this sense I do feel that being gifted *can* feel like more of a curse, than a blessing! For the longest time, over many years, I wasn’t conscious of the fact that I was being taken advantage of. It took many hard lessons and painful moments, to realize that I had the right TO MY OWN COMFORT AND SECURITY, even if it meant someone else was uncomfortable with that.

  23. Kristine Lindemulder Avatar
    Kristine Lindemulder

    Wonderful advice, and I cannot wait for the advanced course! ❤️