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Can't Say No

Can't Say No


Dear Rachel,

My entire life I've had a hard time saying "no" to people. But now everyone assumes that I am always available and don't even seem to notice that I am doing them favors. And when I need something, no one even offers. What should I do?

Jennifer G.
Los Angeles, CA

Dear Jennifer,

There are really two issues here. There's the fact that you feel that you're being taken advantage of by those who are constantly asking you for favors. And then there's the issue of what you're expecting other people to do for you in return.

If doing it makes you resentful, hurt, bitter or feel used, then it is no favor

Let's discuss the first issue first. You say that you have a hard time saying "no" to people, so that you end up always doing others favors when you really don't want to.

It sounds to me that what's happening here is that when someone asks you to do them a favor, you often perceive the request not so much as a question, but more like a demand with a question mark at the end. Meaning, you don't feel that you're being asked to do the favor, but rather than you're being told to do it. You then agree, albeit reluctantly, because you don't feel we have the option to refuse.

But a favor is only a favor when it is something nice that you are doing to help out someone else. If doing it makes you resentful, hurt, bitter or feel used, then you are not doing the other person a "favor" and you are certainly doing no favor to yourself.

In Jewish law, there is model for this concept. We have the mitzvah of tzedakah, of giving charity. The word "mitzvah" means both "good deed" and "commandment" — a mitzvah is a good deed that we're supposed to do. But Jewish law sets parameters for the mitzvah of charity. We are obligated to give no less than 10% of our income to charity, but no more than 20%. As for that How can you tell when to say "no?" As long as you are willing and happy to help, say "yes" additional ten percent between 10% and 20%, Torah law states that you should only give it only if it is something that you choose to do and really want to do. If giving that "extra" charity makes you resent or regret the fact that you have an obligation to give charity, then you are not allowed to do so since it is counterproductive.

In other words, we have three level of charity. 1) the minimum 10% that we should give, whether we feel like it or not. 2) extra charity, up to 20%, that we should give only if we truly desire to. 3) excessive charity, or more than 20%, which we're told not to give (except under certain extreme circumstances)

While favors obviously can't be measured as precisely as dollars in the bank, I think we have a model here that could be applied to that kind of charity as well. There is a certain "minimum" amount of favors that we do for others, similar to the 10% of charity that we are obligated to give. However, to go above and beyond that with our favors is not a positive thing if it could lead to a reaction where we want to stop doing favors for people altogether.

How can you tell when to say "no?" As long as you are willing and happy to help, say "yes." The moment you beginning feeling that "everyone feels you are available" or that "no one recognizes you are doing favors" it is time to say "no." As it sounds, you may need to take a little break from doing favors and focus a little more on yourself right now, and then slowly begin saying "yes" as you are ready.

It's not a favor when the person owes you something in return

As for the other issue you bring up — that no one seems to help you out when you need it — that, too, is a problem. But the problem is not so much that they are not helping you, but that you are expecting it. If you are doing someone a favor so that they will do a favor for you in return, then it's not a favor. It is only a favor when you are doing something for the sake of helping out the other person. As soon as you do something for something in return, it becomes a trade-off. It's not a favor when the person owes you something in return.

You are right, ideally when you help people, they should be willing to help you as well when you need their help. But if they don't, it is their problem and a reflection of them. Your problem is only when you expect it.

For now, just remember that you have the right to say "no" to a question that is asked. If you can help, and you are not resentful in doing so, then by all means say "yes." But bear in mind that when you say "yes" you are owed nothing in return. You are doing a favor. And doing a good deed is all the reward you should need.


"Dear Rachel" is a bi-weekly column that is answered by a rotating group of experts. This question was answered by Sara Esther Crispe.

Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the Co-Director of Interinclusion, a non-profit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of and wrote the popular weekly blog, Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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hasan alam Dubai August 28, 2017

Very well explained Sara Reply

Mlk Brockton Ma November 22, 2016

Rachel Enjoyed what you've written there are many schools of thought in I can't say no . Helping hand I believe is sometimes more of a crutch for that's the easy way some people are looking for . Than there are the people that you should watch out for their favor may have a huge price tag . Choose your people that you want to help . Seniors are very much in need of a helping hand . Their thank you is a honest one . What you've written has so many different aspects to it. One could go on forever down many different roads . I am a giver but have learnt don't expect any favors in return or thank yous . When you give it should from your heart . Reply

Brindha Blr, India August 17, 2009

No.. The best choice sometimes! For me, Saying 'No' from deepest conviction is better than a 'Yes' expressed to please somebody or to show-off you are kind no matter what!! Reply

Anonymous June 25, 2008

i for one find it hard to say no, because you feel you owe it to people to do as they wish, which ends up not really working out, on the other hand i don't think saying no most of the time is nice either it's like saying- i need my self-worth, and in order to keep it that way i won't go out of my way to help others. it needs balance-knowing where to put the limits. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI August 5, 2007

Setting Limits Saying NO has NEVER been a problem for me - I just do it! If you don't set limits, people won't respect you - they'll push you around and walk all over you! All it takes is judgment, and it's true some people thought I was insensitive and even mean, but those who truly understood me realized it was all about self-respect. Reply

anonymous October 29, 2006

Me too up until recently.. I am a teenager and up until recently i was also the type to not be able to say no. After a while, it was getting to me that no one seemed to care so I just stopped. Even now I feel weird saying no but its just so much easier. After I read this, I realized that its really not so right. I mean, I would like favors even if I wouldn't do anything about them!I have decided to start saying yes again! thanx!!! Reply

Anonymous September 14, 2006

Can't say no What about the prohibition against saying "no" to a Jew in need of money who asks it of you? Reply

Jesica Samson Ramrakjar Thane, India June 8, 2006

Help Others, in returns G-d will help you Friends,
Always remember that when you help others you are indirectly helping G-d (by helping a needy person). HE has children of the entire world and HE sends us on earth in way of birth so that we humans can learn to imbibe some good qualities that HE has taught us. It's like HE sends message to your brain that you help this person on my behalf as I (G-d) is busy with some other equally important lets take it in a positive way that we (humans) are helping HIM by distributing our duties in returns to thank Happy Helping and Happy receving blessings from HIM rather than feeling that you are being taken for granted by humans. Reply

Anonymous April 28, 2006

Resenting unreturned favors I know this syndrome well, as it is a personal test of my own as it is my nature to give to others while I don''t seem to get back much of the time. I too have the yetzer hara to resent.
But we have no right.
Do not judge others. That will cancel out your merit.
Hashem creates everyone as unique individuals- not everyone has the inclination to do favors and unfortunately many don''t even see the need to help others. Furthermore, some are meant to be givers and some are meant to be recipients. It''s all in G-d''s Plan.

Of course you need to learn to say "I am not willing" under circumstances when you really feel that way- this is very important.

On the other hand, Happy is he who goes in Hashem''s Way and in doing chessed for others, it is His path you have chosen and for that, you can feel proud.


Anonymous April 23, 2006

I have the same situation. People ask me for a favour and I happily do it without even thinking of saying no. I just find it a bit odd when the same people refuse to do you a favour another time. Do they not realize there is something called Hakaras Hatov?
I am a teenager with a newly aquired license. When girls ask me for rides at any time during the day, I try to work it out for them. Why? I appreciate the fact that others went out of their way for me so I'll do it as well. I always hope that the chain continues.
Is there anything wrong with being the person that always says yes? I actually think it's quite convenient for everyone else, and if it doesn't bother you -go ahead! Reply

Carmen Z Torres Bloomfield, NJ via March 11, 2006

What if....... What if, it is not so much whether I say yes or no, but the the type of repercussions that ensue from either yes or no. What if, the tone that I use is not "suitable" for me on the return? What if it is not so much that I can not, but more that I "cant"

What if?


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