say no without feeling guilty

This is a guest post by Dian Mayasari, a PhD Researcher in the Management School and a member of the Disabled & Ill Researchers’ Network.

image3.jpegI have multiple sclerosis (MS), a degenerative, inflammatory, chronic disease that damages the myelin of the nerve cells in my brain and spinal cord. I’m constantly in pain and I experience deep fatigue. People in my life have told me to forget my PhD, to change career, do something else; but I proceeded anyway. In fact, my PhD is my remedy. My PhD journey makes me busy and helps me forget the fear and worry related to my MS. I realise the PhD journey can be daunting, confusing and exhausting, there’s plenty of opinions on the internet about this.

For me, my PhD is both isolated and social. My project is mine alone to lead, but I must mingle, meet others, and build networks with different researcher communities in order to get the feedback, support and resources I need for my research to be a success.

Managing all this could drain my energy, which is usually low due to my MS. Theoretically, prioritising what I choose to engage with seems like the solution. I must be able to ‘say no’ to myself and ‘say no’ to other people. Practically though, I need to prioritise in a way that does not leave me with a guilty feeling.

These are two things that work for me, in saying no without a guilt.

  1. Saying no to myself: Create tools for a ‘legitimate no’

In my first PhD supervision meeting two years ago, my supervisor said: “There are a lot of activities; training, courses, seminars, societies, etc. Wisely choose that which you need, or which will help you support your research.”

So then, how to decide what I, or my research really need?

My supervisors play a significant role in this. They ask me and remind me (many times) to complete the Training Need Analysis (TNA) every six months. At first, I thought this was just another boring-administrative-nice-to-have document. On reflection though, I have realised that the TNA is a great process for making my PhD more focused, structured and planned. On my TNA form I list events and activities I will need to take part in for the next six months. This may be, attending training, or a course I will take. I use the learning management systems and portals we have available, to explore the specific training I need and what University provides to fulfil that need. My supervisors want me to specifically mention the name of the training on my TNA, when it is, and how it benefits me.

We also use TNA to plan how many conferences I will attend in a year. My supervisors have a list of ‘good conferences’ for PGRs and based on that list I plan where to go, when and what papers I should prepare. Sometimes I need to travel outside the city or country to attend a conference. Having them listed on my TNA helps me to carefully consider which conferences are worth attending, without making me too exhausted. Consequently, I may not attend the ‘famous’ training course, event or conference that my colleagues have attended, but that is okay. After two years I’ve realised that most of the time, my research is not that related to the famous or crowded events, I do not need to feel guilty.

This makes my choices both considered, and legitimate. If it is not in my TNA, it is okay for me not to register or attend. The TNA is my tool for saying no. For other people, it does not have to be the TNA that gives you this power and courage to avoid wasting energy and feeling guilty, any long-term or medium-term planning tools or method will do.

  1. Saying no to other people: refusing the request, not rejecting the person.

There are so many things that are not listed on my TNA or my wider life plan. Friends may ask me to help organise an event or to celebrate their graduation, their birthday, etc. It would cause me extra stress and fatigue if I say yes to everyone and everything, and that would cost me my health. Sometimes I struggle to say no to other people because I am afraid I will hurt their feelings.

I found this simple template from the MS website that helps me say no politely:

“Thank you for the invitation [put the specific occasion], but it does not work with my schedule.”

I practiced saying that sentence many times. At first, I hesitated to say it but then I read somewhere that it is also important to build into my own mindset that I am ‘refusing the request not the person’. And I try to communicate this to the person making the request.

I rarely explain my illness when I refuse a request. To do so makes me sound guilty or like I am seeking sympathy which will make people treat me differently due to my illness. Instead I simply stick to the notion that the request does not fit my schedule. Try it for yourself, and remember it’s important to practice saying it out loud, then you will be ready when someone asks you to do something you don’t have the energy budget for.

Now I can say it with confidence, and as far I can remember, nobody ever got angry with me when I told them that clearly and directly that I cannot fulfil their request. We are still friends!

These are my experiences with saying no. For me: The sky is not the limit. Stamina is. 😊


  1. Thank you, Dian, for sharing your strategies for saying no and managing your time and energy. I now plan to remind myself that I am not rejecting the person who makes a request of my time, I am just saying no to a request. Such a smart way to reframe the situation.


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