It’s tricky when we find ourselves wanting to get out of something we’ve agreed to. We don’t like letting people down and feeling like we’re “flaky” or “lazy”. Side note: we’re not. 

If you need to get out something you’ve agreed to, it’s typically because:

  • You’ve overcommitted
  • It’s not your skill set or you’re not the right person.
  • Your circumstances have changed.
  • The nature of the ask has changed.
  • You said yes reflexively and now have a better sense of your bandwidth/desire.
  • You tell people what you think they want to hear to look good or get them off your back.

It’s easy to judge yourself for “reneging” on an agreement, but you’re human. Sometimes we humans belatedly realise that we don’t need or want to do something we’ve already agreed to. 

It’s also possible that you’re a people pleaser, especially if having to get out of things happens on the regular. Your people pleasing includes being afraid of disappointing or angering the person, or fear of looking like a Bad Person. Keep in mind that we are socialised and conditioned from early childhood to be people pleasers. We also learn shameful messages that effectively force us to “push on” and “go ahead” to look like Good People. 

So, how do you get out of something you’ve agreed to?

Be honest.

Don’t dick them around and keep leading them to believe you’re still going ahead when you aren’t. Don’t keep avoiding them in the hope they’ll get the message. If possible, communicate via the original mode of communication from when they asked you. Texts, while they seem like the easy way to dodge conflict and confrontation, are major sources of miscommunication. Be honest, but don’t feel the need to tell them your life story. Cut to the chase.

This is where saying “I hold my hands up…” comes in very handy. e.g. I hold my hands up and admit that I’ve overcommitted myself. 

With the benefit of hindsight, I shouldn’t have answered on the spot and needed to check in with my schedule and what’s on plate. 

Now that I understand what’s involved, this isn’t my skill set. Or, Now that I understand what’s involved, I know I’m not the right person for this. 

When I agreed to this, you’d said it was X, but now it’s Y. As a result, I’m not going to be able to do [what I agreed to].

Apologise if needed. But don’t over-egg it (or beat yourself up).

I know you might feel bad about having to let someone down. Still, if you milk the apology dry, it will be the other party that winds up feeling bad. Generally speaking, it’s likely that what you’re saying no to really isn’t that deep. Sure, you have to get out of doing something you agreed to, but it’s not a crime. Contrary to popular opinion, you’re also not hurting the person’s feelings by saying no. Apologise for overcommitting (or whatever), not for saying no. Don’t shame yourself for saying no or for having to retract what you agreed to. 

Say what you can do, if applicable. 

Sometimes we realise that we don’t have the bandwidth to be involved in something to the degree someone might want or expect us to be. We don’t have to offer an alternative, but if we want to, we can. Examples: 

I won’t be able to [the original ask], but I can be involved by doing X. Let me know if this works for you. 

I won’t be able to stay for an entire week over Christmas, but I will be there for three days. 

I won’t be able to run a stall on the day of the market, but I can come by and help set up the day before for a couple of hours if that works for you?

Don’t leave it until the last minute. 

I know it can be a pain in the bum and cause you to break out in a sweat, but let people know where they stand ASAP. If you don’t, you’re either going to force yourself to go ahead or leave communicating your no right down to the wire. If anything’s going to frustrate and piss someone off, it’s your continuing to make out like you’re going to do something and then backing out at the last minute. 

You are allowed to say no, and you’re also allowed to change your mind. 

That doesn’t mean the people on the receiving end need to be all-singing and all-dancing. It also doesn’t mean that because you’re allowed to change your mind and that no one is entitled to a yes that you can throw your yes around without being responsible for the consequences. 

For the future:

Utilise the power of six magic words: Let me get back to you.

Make a firm commitment to yourself that you don’t give on-the-spot yeses. This makes it super easy to know when to say no or to ask for more time. For instance, I don’t make decisions on the fly that essentially require me to make an ongoing financial commitment. This means that if someone turns up on my doorstep or stops me in the supermarket, I say no to their offer. Depending on what it is, I ask for more information or whether I can for instance, if I’m interested, sign up or donate from home. 99% of the time, their answer is no. And that just shores up my no. If you can’t give me time and space to make a decision, I’m not going to emotionally blackmail or pressure myself into saying yes. 

Notice and pay attention to the presence of what I call the people-pleaser feelings. 

Anxiety, guilt, obligation, resentment, overwhelm, overloaded, feeling trapped, etc., are clear indicators that you’re doing what might seem like a “good thing” but for the wrong reason(s). If you say yes based on the people-pleaser feelings, you are guaranteed to feel bad about what you’ve agreed to. 

Pay attention to the chatter in your head.

Notice irritability, anger, resentment, judgement, self-criticism. Are you worried about how you will be perceived by others? If so, saying yes as is would not be right for you. Make it a desire, or say no

Avoid ambiguity

If you’re dealing with someone who seems to take it as a foregone conclusion that you’re going to do something, it can feel a tad overwhelming and anxiety-inducing to so much as contemplate saying no. Aside from being mindful of being railroaded (or emotionally blackmailing yourself into something), communicate clearly. If you’re ambiguous, certain assertive and aggressive folk take this as a yes. Read more about the landmarks of boundaried communication.

Be boundaried about help and support. 

Giving help or support doesn’t necessarily mean getting involved in all of the nitty-grittys. So you don’t have to be the lead person or do “everything”. Work out and state how much or how little you want to be involved. Remember, if you don’t feel good after you give help or support, it’s because you’re not giving.

If agreeing to something or your level of involvement means breaching your boundaries and encroaching on your well-being, that’s a very good reason to amend/cancel your original yes. When you’re clear with your yes and no, it manages expectations–yours and other people’s.

You always have the option of saying no, and it’s more than okay to change your mind. But use the data from experiences where you agree to something and then have to get out of it to make better choices. Positively learn from the experience instead of shaming you. The more authentically you say yes and no, the less you have to go around backtracking. 

The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon/HarperCollins) is out now and available in bookshops on and offline. Listen to the first chapter.

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Baggage Reclaim with Natalie Lue

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