When Does “No” Mean “No”?

I received the following question and thought is was such a good one, I asked for permission to answer and post it here. What do you do when someone wants to give you something you don’t want to receive? Read on …

stop_signHi, Amanda,

People INSIST on giving me stuff I don’t want, even if I try to be tactful and deter them. (Lots of books, products, etc. also from people who hope I’ll promote their work.)

And it often seems like a situation with friends where re-gifting (which I have noooo problem with, except it does feel a bit sleazy) is not an option. In those situations, the person is around, would look for their item and notice it was gone and be hurt/insulted. And so I’m expected to be all grateful (I’m not) and actually use it.

I really hate clutter in the first place and now live in a studio in a senior building where there just isn’t room for stuff to pile up that I don’t want or need. Very little shelf room for books–I got rid of hundreds of them. I’m at a stage of life where I find material goods a burden.

So this morning I was working in our community room library, my volunteer work here, and this charming old fellow, late 80s, I am fond of said he knew I was a book collector (I’m not) and he was going to give me a book for my collection (I don’t have one). He went upstairs and brought back a fairy tale book, a nice one beautifully illustrated and probably worth a bit. I tried to deter him tactfully, saying it was too valuable and if we put it in the library it would probably get stolen (it would).

He said, no, no, it was just for me. Proud that he could give me something of value. Gahhh!!!! I couldn’t refuse without hurting his feelings, and what if he ever wants it back.

Anyway, no doubt he would never know if I got rid of it. But what I’d like to know is how to change the metaphysical dynamic, thought form, whatever. Any advice would be appreciated.


I love your question! This is such an important topic —  how and where we place our boundaries and what we do when people don’t honor them.

As I discuss in my book, receiving is not a passive state. It’s quite dynamic. Receiving our feelings, being willing to disappoint people, and being OK with feeling uncomfortable takes practice. Many of us were raised to tend to other people’s feelings at the expense of our own. When we don’t have enough practice receiving – and in this case it is receiving and honoring our own feelings – it can be hard to hold our ground.

Let’s raise the stakes:

If someone wanted to take you out to dinner for a date and you didn’t want to go, would you say “thanks but no” even if they insisted?

If someone wanted to have sex with you and you didn’t want to, would you say “no” even if that person badgered you?

How high do the stakes need to be for you to honor your feelings? How willing are you to risk the other person’s disappointment, anger, sadness, discomfort, etc.?

A practice script with the charming eighty-year-old:

“I know you are a collector of books.”

“I’m not!”

“But I want to give you a book of fairytales!”

“Very sweet of you! But please give it to someone else. I have no room in my apartment for anything!”

“I am going to go get it and give it to you.”

“I can’t accept it. But thank you.”

Sweet man returns with book…

“I thank you for thinking of me, but I can’t accept it. I am not a book collector and I have no room in my apartment.”

“Take it!”


“Take it!”


“Take it, because it will make me happy!”

“Thank you but no!”

“But you are the person I want to give it to! Take it!

“Thank you but no!”

How many go-arounds are you willing to go through?

There are plenty of people in the world who will not honor your boundaries. YOU must honor them. It is not someone else’s job. I speak about receiving and boundaries in my book. What’s true is that skilled receivers have healthy boundaries.

Do you honor your feelings? Do you know how and when to say no?


7 thoughts on “When Does “No” Mean “No”?

  1. GREAT advice and response… LOVED reading that! I especially like how you make the point by raising the stakes concerning boundaries… showing your audience that there IS eventually, finally, a point at which we’ll say NO!!! It’s true: if someone else lacks the perception, sensitivity, or respect for our boundaries, it’s up to us to re-balance the situation (gently but firmly, but sometimes just firmly!). Often, the sooner a re-balancing takes place, the better. When things go too far in one direction, it becomes much more difficult to get back one’s sense of equilibrium. Those who feel a sense of entitlement toward us (especially if we’re good natured and want to try to smooth everything over) can go from friendly to angry if we wait too long to tell them, “enough!”

  2. Thanks for your comment Victoria! I really felt for Donna with her dilemma with the elderly man. Most of us have versions of exactly what she encountered. Not speaking up for ourselves can easily become a habit. I always say that receiving is harder than giving. Receiving – and acting on – our own feelings requires strength and practice.

  3. This is such a good example of how to say NO when people press on and on, Amanda. (Is it harder to say NO to our sweet elders?)

    As to how many go around I’m willing to go through ~ certainly not as many as I used to. I realized that saying no to others is actually saying yes to myself. I started saying “no” more when it seems that I never heard “yes” from others. It felt like a standoff at first, but it’s because my “no” muscles were weak. They’re stronger now and so are my boundaries.

  4. Thanks for your comment CJ! I think everyone has a particular kind of person to whom it is hard to say “no.” Many people have a hard time saying “no” to a family member. It sounds like you have been able to create more reciprocity in your relationships by learning when and where to set your boundaries. It’s such an important thing to do, isn’t it? Brings a lot of peace :-)

  5. I LOVE the specific examples – this helps so much to understand the concepts discussed and to work at applying them. Thank you!

  6. Excellent post and responses. I have another possible response to the elderly man. At the point of the “take it” “no” exchange, I would pause & look him square in the eye and ask “If I accept this from you, may I gift it to another person when I’m done enjoying it?”. Then go from there.

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