How to Say No: A Guide to Guilt and Eating

Treats are such a common staple today that you couldn’t possibly eat them every time they were offered without gaining unwanted weight.

“I made brownies! Here have one.”

“Oh, they smell so good! Thank you, but I had a big breakfast and I’m still full.”

(A white lie.)

“Come on. It’s just a little brownie.”

“Really, I appreciate it, but no thank you.”

“Really? You’re such a health freak that you won’t even eat the brownie I made?”

“I made brownies! Here have one.”

“Oh, they smell so good! Thank you, but I had a big breakfast and I’m still full.”

(A white lie.)

“Come on. It’s just a little brownie.”

“Really, I appreciate it, but no thank you.”

“Really? You’re such a health freak that you won’t even eat the brownie I made?”

That escalated quickly. Another example of the oh-too-frequent social guilt of not consuming what others want you to.

We live in an odd world. If your experience is anything like mine, treats are such a common staple of every event where humans congregate that you couldn’t possibly eat them every time they were offered without gaining a good bit of unwanted weight.

Even with the best of intentions, it is common to find yourself losing all control to guilt—your buddy who wants you to have beers when you stop by or Grandma who always has cookies on hand. Their offer is full of love, but you don’t want what they are offering. Saying no is interpreted as a rejection of them, not the offer.

In day to day interactions, the only responses that have a chance of not offending are:

  • I don’t feel very well. I think I’m sick.
  • I’m having a colonoscopy this afternoon and can’t eat anything.
  • Or, I’m doing 20 day cleanse. Yeah, right now I can only eat alfalfa grass, beet juice, and this $72 meal replacement shake. (People totally understand a diet with a deadline. What tends to upset them is actually changing your lifestyle.)

Understanding Guilt

Food can be emotional. People often feel legitimately offended by your decision not to consume what they want you to, but that is on them. They are responsible for their emotions, not you.

You haven’t physically harmed them, dissed them, or even gone on a rant about how sugar is the devil. If you respectfully decline and their feelings are hurt, that really is not your problem. This is much easier said than done, but it is an essential understanding for living authentically in this bizarre world.

Guilt is a form of manipulation. When people try to make you feel guilty they are trying to coerce your behavior to fit what meets their desires, irrespective of what you want. This is especially problematic when it comes to food.

The Western diet has brought society to epidemic poor health that is hard to truly appreciate. The decision to reject common norms and value your own health is one of the best things you could ever do. Anyone coercing you to break your own rules and weaken your habits is not a benign force, but a negative one, at least at that moment.

This is all very general and overly-dramatic. They certainly aren’t evil, but we have to clearly understand that making them feel better is not our job. Certainly, you should feel free to have treats, but if you’ve decided this isn’t the time (as health will often require you to), then that is a mature decision that they should respect. Any other response is a reflection on them, not you.

Boundaries 101

You are not responsible for their emotions. The opposite is also true. No one is responsible for your emotions, except you. Good relationships are built on this understanding. People interact honestly and support each other in the pursuits they find meaningful.

It is not that there is a sociopathic disregard for the emotions of other humans. Empathy is intact, yet that empathy is founded on the understanding that personal responsibility precludes lasting fulfillment.

Dysfunctional relationships tend to feature one person (the needy) frequently guilting the other (someone needing to be needed) into acquiescing to their every wish. This dynamic isn’t good for anyone. The needy needs tough realities to help them take personal responsibility.

Being “kind” to him by giving in is actually a veiled form of cruelty that keeps him immature and dependent. Alternatively, the needed must learn to resist the guilt that controls her so she can feel peace and invest her energy more fruitfully.

I get that you could take this too far. For example, my grandfather has been having a hell of a time with his prostate cancer and he recently moved into a senior living center in Florida. I went down to see him and we had a great morning full of good conversation.

He then grabbed a Dove chocolate from the bowl next to his chair and asked me, “Do you allow yourself an occasional chocolate square?” Absolutely! I’d have been a real jerk to pass on that.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do things for other people or that you shouldn’t ever have a spontaneous cookie at grandma’s. The problem is when we are constantly pulling ourselves away from our self-development goals in order to please others. This is almost always bad and it is a particularly large problem when it comes to food.

What you eat matters. It affects your health, your energy, and the way you live your life. You have to have boundaries that you’ll stand for in order to be healthy.

Boundaries are, in effect, rules we set for ourselves. I am determined not to let other people dictate what foods I consume. Sure, I’ll allow myself to be pulled in by the fun of an evening out, but only on my terms. Not through guilt. That is my rule.

This goes further than just our boundaries with other people. Every healthy and successful person I know has strong boundaries in their fitness and work as well. They set rules for themselves and follow them, because you can’t rely on motivation or feeling “locked in,” to accomplish an objective.

If you want to be healthy you’ll have to start workouts even when you aren’t “feeling it” and eat well even when you are having cravings. Boundaries free us from the tyranny of deliberation. They create clarity in our values and help us act as we’d want to, absent of impulse. For more help clarifying values and creating systems to help you act, check out my free ebook, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery.

How to Say No

To me, good living boils down to our motto at Inspired Human Development: Define values and act accordingly. It is simple, but it isn’t easy. Saying no when you feel pressured to eat something that you don’t want to is great practice.

It tends to follow these simple steps:

  1. Say no, thank you. Any pushing after that makes them the jerk, not you. If they have a problem with your decision to control what you put in your own mouth, they are the problem.

I guess that’s just one step, and that is it. You don’t need to explain yourself, just smile and say “No, thank you.” You don’t have to have an excuse. You aren’t doing anything wrong. Still, the more respectful and unemotional you are, the more diffused they’ll become.

In the past, I’ve found that my defensiveness tended to incite a reciprocal hostility on the other end. Meditation has helped me not to project my fears and fuel the fire.

This isn’t a failsafe, however. There will be those who just can’t understand why you are doing this to them. That is life. We can’t please everyone.