How to Say “No” Without Feeling Guilty

(Last Updated On: August 8, 2016)

Do you say yes to every freelance project that comes your way? I used to. I said yes because I was scared that the work would dry up and my income would drop. One day I said yes to what, in retrospect, was a ridiculous project. I had to write twenty blog posts about cruising to Antarctica. I would earn $150 dollars for the work. As a people-pleasing freelancer, I wrote my heart out. The work took a lot of time, and with each progressive post, I felt more and more bitter. As my hourly rate dropped from $15/hour to $12/hour to $8/hour, I fumed.  When I turned in the project and collected my pittance of a paycheck, the client asked if I would be interested in doing more work. “No, thank you,” I said. It’s been more than four years since I took that project, and I still struggle to say no to clients.

Before you learn HOW to say no, you need to understand WHY it’s important to say no. Understanding why you owe it to yourself to say no is what will allow you to set boundaries without feeling guilty.

How to Say No Without Feeling GuiltyWhy you need to say “No”

No one else is looking out for you.

One of the benefits of working freelance is that you get to be your own boss, but being a boss has many responsibilities. Most importantly, you are responsible for your own well-being. It is not your client’s responsibility to look out for you. They only see one tiny part of your business, so you cannot expect them to know when they are pushing your boundaries or asking for too much.

As the boss, it is your job to put your own needs first. If you want to make your freelancing career sustainable, you need to say no to clients who won’t pay your rate. Say no to these projects because you need to make a living.

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You also need to say no to projects that will take up too much of your time. It’s hard to fight back the fear of running out of work, and running out of money, but you’re a business owner, so you need to get used to making these tough decisions. If you’re working constantly, and you don’t have time to exercise, or enjoy family time, or read for pleasure or generally take care of yourself, then you’re going to burn out.

If it helps, think of saying “No” as a responsibility you have both to yourself and your clients. Your clients don’t want to work with someone who is frazzled, overwhelmed, and resentful. Saying no to work that you simply aren’t able to take on benefits both you and your potential client.

Saying no frees up your time and energy for better projects.

Being your own boss means you need to take care of yourself. It also means that you need to make strategic business decisions. One of the great benefits of saying no is that you free up your time and energy for better projects.

If you are too busy working for low pay to pitch yourself for better work, then you are doing yourself a disservice. As a freelancer, time is your most limited resource. You need to use your time well if you want to grow your business, make more money, and escape burnout. Use this formula to determine the value of your time. Once you know how much money an hour of your time is worth you can make data-based decisions about the work you take on.

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Saying no makes you look more professional.

When you start treating your business like a business, other people will too. First, you need to get crystal clear about your business goals. Do you want to earn a certain amount of money this year? Do you want to break into a new niche? Do you want to raise your rates to .15/word or $35/hour? Say no to work does that not help you achieve your goals.

When you have clear business goals and make decisions that help you reach your goals, saying no becomes easier. It’s no longer a personal decision; it’s a business decision.

Your prospective clients are business owners, too. In general, they will respect you for treating your business as a business.

Remember, you owe it to yourself and your business to set boundaries. If you understand why it’s so important to say no, it will be easier for you to say no without feeling guilty. Like any skill, saying no takes practice, and it will get easier over time.

Are you a boundary-setting pro, or do you struggle to say no? Please share your experience in the comments!

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  • Early in my career, I made the mistake of doing many projects for free thinking that I was establishing a reputation. What I discovered is that those clients became the most unappreciative of my work, the most demanding, and the most disrespectful. So, Emily, you hit it right on the target. Your advise and counsel is absolutely right on, and I wish I had followed your advice early on in my own career.

    • You make a great point Diane– if you don’t value your own work, then you can’t expect your clients to value it. I hope you were at least able to use the work you did in your portfolio to help you land better clients.