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Oh I wish I could, but...

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

There was a lovely line in Friends where Phoebe is invited to do something and she says 'Oh, I wish I could, but - I don't want to.' I remember laughing heartily at this and saying 'I wish I could say that more!'

The reason it was funny, of course, is because we know that we so often want to say that, but feel we can't. We worry that it will appear rude or selfish. When we were children, quite often we'd say 'No' or 'I don't want to' to something and the adults around us would tell us off or make us do it anyway. We learned that what we wanted wasn't as important as what other people wanted. Sometimes we were told that overtly, sometimes it was more subtle; but we learned it early and we learned it well. Some of us might have said to ourselves 'when I grow up, I'm not going to do a single thing I don't want to do!'

And yet here we are, all grown up, doing things we don't want to do every day of our lives. Some of the time that's by conscious choice, in order to get the benefits or avoid the penalties that are associated with that thing. Most of us have days when we don't want to go to work, but we go anyway because we know that the money we get paid at the end of the week or the month will allow us to do things we do want to do, like eat food and sleep indoors. It's an acceptable trade-off.

But even when the stakes aren't that high, or there isn't anything that will adequately compensate us for doing the thing we don't want to do, we still do it. Or we feel bad about not doing it. I was reading Facebook the other day and someone had posted saying their social anxiety had led them to cancel plans with a friend and they were wracked with guilt over it. As if social anxiety wasn't enough to cope with on its own.

(Actually they said 'forced', which links to the subject of choices. I can't help thinking that they would have felt better about themselves if they had said they'd chosen to cancel their plans because of their social anxiety, rather than making themselves helpless in the matter).

The thing is, it's all right to say you don't want to do something. Of course your choice will have consequences, and you might want those less; which if you've enough sense you'll think of before you give your answer. I was recently asked to do someone a favour which I didn't really want to do, but if I'd refused, the consequences might have been that the other person felt aggrieved, as they've recently done the same thing for me; or they decline to help me in the future when I really need it. I didn't want those consequences, particularly as I thought they would be reasonable ones, so I said Yes. But I could just as well have said 'I'd rather not'.

But how many times are there no real consequences, or only imaginary ones we've dreamed up out of our own paranoia and lack of self-worth? If I say I don't want to do that, they won't like me any more or they'll say I'm selfish. Well, that's possible. Only you can say how likely. Equally they might just shrug and say 'Okay, another time maybe'. But instead of being honest and saying 'Thank you for asking, but I don't want to this time' we make up excuses about how busy we are or how we have to take our cat to have their claws clipped at that particular time. That doesn't work, because they then say 'ok, how about Tuesday instead?' and we have to make up another excuse for why Tuesday isn't any good either. By the time they've suggested a third time, either we feel so guilty we end up saying Yes after all, or they're getting the hint that we don't want to and are starting to feel offended. Which would you rather, if the shoe was on the other foot? Someone who continually made excuses, or who just said 'Thanks, but I don't think that's for me'?

Here's another way of looking at it. If someone asked you to do something and you really wanted to, but actually had another engagement you couldn't break, what would you do? You'd say 'Oh I wish I could, but I can't.' And the other person would say something like 'that's a shame, but maybe next time'. Of course the reason we think that's ok is because it's not our choice. Even though it is, because doing the other thing was a choice too. We can't be accused of being selfish because we have a good reason for saying no, which we've been conditioned to believe 'I don't want to' isn't. Let's consider selfishness for a minute. Being called selfish is one of the worst things anyone can say to me. I was often called it when I was a child, usually when my wishes didn't fall in line with those of my parents. An accusation of selfishness means 'you're putting what you want ahead of what I want, and that's bad and wrong.' Why is that? Well, because they want you to put what they want ahead of what you want. And yet it's you that's selfish? I think not. Negative labels almost always say as much, if not more, about the labeller than they do about the target.

Honesty is only a problem when it's disrespectful. You can be cruelly honest, or you can be respectfully honest. I have a very honest friend, and if I ask her whether my bum looks big in this she won't say 'Have you looked in the mirror?' but 'I don't think it's a flattering shape for you. I liked what you had on yesterday much better.' If someone asks you to a social event and you don't want to go, you could say 'I wouldn't go anywhere with you!' or 'Thank you so much for asking, I'm very flattered, but no.'

Think about it. If you asked someone to do something, would you rather they honestly and respectfully said they didn't want to, or agreed and were resentful or unhappy about it? If you have enjoyed this article, please share it with a friend.


Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If you would like to contact her in confidence you can reach her at or via her website at

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