Bowing Out Gracefully: When “No” Is a Gift

by | Jul 5, 2021 | Healthy Relationships

Recently, a participant on one of my weekly learning calls asked me how to end a friendship, especially when we don’t want to “get into it all” with the other person.

We’ve all been there.

We continue to hang out with that person, even though we’re just not that into them. We show up for that regular lunch date, even though it’s started to feel like a burden. We feel that sinking heaviness in our gut every time that person’s name lights up our phone. We stay in a relationship that lost its vitality years ago, even though we’ve longed to leave.

Having hard conversations takes courage and clarity.

Here I share some general principles and some useful word-for-word scripts that you can use the next time you’d like to nonviolently disengage from a conversation, friendship, or relationship.

1. “No” is not a rejection but a gift.

Deeply empathic people sometimes don’t say true things because they tell themselves, “But I don’t want to hurt their feelings.”

You’re allowed to say no.
You’re allowed to know what is energizing and working for you – and what is not.
You’re allowed to ask for what you want.

It’s a gift for us when someone is direct about what is and isn’t working for them.
It’s a gift for us when people have the courage to tell us they just aren’t that into us.
It’s a gift for us when others stop doing things with us or for us when their heart isn’t really in it.

Think about all the ways that you’ve paid a price for someone else’s half-hearted yes, and make a commitment to start following the wisdom of your heart. If it’s a wholehearted yes, go for it. If it’s lukewarm, do yourself and the other person a huge favor and disengage gracefully.

2. Stand for reciprocity.

Being able to say “no” to anything that is no longer life-affirming to ourselves is foundational to our self-care. We are responsible for managing our life energy wisely. One way to do that is by investing it into people, choices, and experiences that are reciprocal. 

We do not have the capacity to be everything to all people, and we simply cannot meet everyone else’s needs.

3. Highlight the yes behind every no.

Everything is in perfect balance. When I say no to you, it’s because I’m saying yes to something else. Don’t take this personally, either when you’re delivering it or receiving it. The quickest way to take away the sting of a “no” is to focus on what I’m saying “yes” to.

For example, instead of “No, I don’t want to have dinner with you,” what if you said one of these:

“I’m longing for more rest and self-connection this evening. Could we get together another time instead?”

“As much as I have enjoyed getting to know you, I’m committed to freeing up more of my time and energy for my existing relationships…Thanks for understanding.”

Saying no and yes is simply about prioritizing and energy management: they’re not a form of rejection. Don’t take it personally.

4. Prepare to be surprised.

Give people the opportunity to prove you wrong. Sometimes we don’t say a no gracefully (or receive a no gracefully) because we’ve become attached to our preconceived notions of how things “should go,” or we predict that someone else will react in a negative way and we don’t want to field that.

Keep in mind that our predictions about how someone is going to react to us arise from our memory of past experiences.

Sometimes, our memory is actually about other people and not about this person. Sometimes, “this person” has grown and changed themselves and won’t respond in the same way that they used to.

Make yourself available to be surprised (wow, they responded better than I thought they would and all sorts of new possibilities emerged) or validated (yup, they responded just as I thought they did, which validates and reinforces my instinct to withdraw and disengage further).

As you’re deciding whether or not you’d like to keep investing in a relationship, friendship, or situation, remember to have the conversations you need to have along the way. Be courageous. Ask yourself, have I given it a chance? Have I had the conversations that I need to have in order to discern which is better: to leave or to work on it.

If you do want to work on it, I recommend doing these three things at least:

  • Reveal what’s important to you.

  • Be explicit about your desires, longings, and wishes.

  • Make specific, doable requests that have the potential to show them how to meet your needs better.

One of the most lovely transformative joys of living is that as we begin to show up differently, life also begins to show up differently for us in return.

Let life surprise you.
Let people surprise you.

When we bring a new approach to a conversation, we often experience new relational possibilities. Here’s to embracing the no, the yes, and transformative possibilities that emerge as we engage more fully from our open hearts.

A Few Useful Scripts

When you’re dating someone or developing a friendship with a person, but then realize that you no longer want to continue investing your time and energy into it:

“Hey this is so hard for me to communicate, but I have to tell you that this relationship is not working out for me anymore.” 

“It’s been fun getting to know you, and what we have is not what I am looking for…Take care.” 

“I’ve enjoyed the time we’ve spent getting to know each other, and the connection we have is not what I am looking for in a [friendship/partnership/relationship].” 

When you need some space and time from someone you’re invested in building a longer term relationship or friendship with:

“Hey honey, I love spending time with you and this coming week I’d like to spend [XX] days alone and not spend them texting back and forth. Things have been really busy for me recently, and I just need some space and time to reconnect with myself more deeply and take care of myself. If you’re up for it, let’s reconnect on [Wednesday]. How does that sound?” 


WANT TO GO DEEPER IN THIS WORK?

Here are a few of my programs that might be of interest to you:

  • Conversations from the Heart, a free learning call on Wednesdays at 10am CT. LEARN MORE

  • Membership, a deep dive into personal growth with a dedicated community. LEARN MORE

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3 Comments

  1. Suzann Long

    I have heard you talk about this before and was privileged to hear the conversation on the call. This blog validates and deepens and makes explicit the clarity and compassion that is needed. Since first hearing it, it has also had the effect of empowering me to invest (cautiously) in new relationships, feeling the safety of knowing that I can leave if I decide to. It also frees m to be more authentic in the relationship and have more space for joy; not having to be so skeptical. As always, thanx so much. Suzann Long

    Reply
  2. Graciela Hopkins

    Thank you so much Dr. Yvette, such gentle, self caring and helpful information!! So grateful you have taken the time to share this information!! Just what I need and more!! Graciela Hopkins

    Reply
  3. Paul Rozycki

    Yvette,
    Such helpful insight on this topic has me looking at the times I broke up with my girlfriends. For one, much better words than I had available. For the other, I can’t think of a better way than I did it, and it was very hurtful for her.
    It was the seventies. We really liked each other, even loved each other. She was my first love. The love wasn’t deep and abiding. I felt I was too much a novice in love, It was 6-7 months into our relationship, I was just 19. I wanted to have an open relationship so I could have freedom, gain some perspective (what would a different relationship be like?) She was not having it. She wanted to be "the whole show, or nothing." I responded, "Well, then it’s nothing."
    I am wondering, was there a better way?
    I felt the pang of lost love after that breakup. I did love her, I just wanted to go a different direction and get to know more about life before settling down with any single person. Is that what I might have said to her?

    Reply

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