The psychological mechanics of saying “no” and setting boundaries

At some point in our lives, we have all struggled with saying no. It can be in the professional world, where we are afraid to disappoint our bosses or colleagues, or in the personal realm, where we want to avoid the discomfort that can come with potentially disagreeing with a partner, friend or family member. The ability to say no is not just about declining opportunities it is also about saying yes to the things that are meaningful.

In, brief setting boundaries is a fundamental skill for protecting our time, energy, and mental well-being.

The Costs of Saying Yes – When We Really Mean No

Every ‘yes’ in life comes with an implicit trade-off. When it’s in contradiction to our internal compass, the cost can be detrimental to our well-being. For example a pleasing facade often have some of the following consequences:

  • Signalling that we are worth less than others: By consistently putting the needs of others above our own we silently communicate to ourselves that our time and energy are less valuable.
  • The Doormat Effect: A consequence of consistently yielding to the demands of others is that you become an easy target for exploitation.
  • The Invisible Person: Continuously agreeing to things reinforces the idea that our true selves aren’t worthy of being seen. Some will love the dominating position they can take in your company and others will hate not to be able to really connect and learn more about you.
  • Experience of being lonely: When you do not connect offer a honest connection with others concerning your wants, needs and desires we will become lonely.

Why not just say “No”? The mental barrier explained

The issue with saying yes when we really mean no is rarely – in my experience – never a lack of knowledge on how to say “no” but a sudden inability to say what is needed and at other times obvious. Thus, a contradictory “yes” is is an “automatic” inner process that becomes salient and more important to regulate compared with saying “no”.

Let’s take a look at what that inner barrier can be made of. Generally speaking it is made of fantasies or in other words thoughts about what you should fear. Here are some examples of the fantasies that may become salient:

  • “Others may reject me”: People will think less of you or might exclude you from future opportunities.
  • “I do not deserve better”: A thought that your do not deserve to position yourself better.
  • “I may hurt or disappoint others”: Thoughts about your feelings being worth less comparatively to others and a disbelief that others are able to handle their own emotions (the emotions they face when you say no).
  • “I should be able to….”: The thought that you should be able to do superhuman things – both have extraordinarily time and resources.

Controlling and avoiding your fantasies at a cost of a “no”

When it becomes difficult to say “no” it is because variations of the above fantasies are experienced as unwanted to the extend that they need to be avoided. The avoidance is an act of control – sometimes it happens so fast we hardly notice this focus or just take it for given.

The effect of controlling the fantasies result in a loss of control of what actions are taken in the outside world. We are constantly aware and concerned of the fantasies and there is an ongoing effort at eliminating them which is unsuccessful because they are wired together with act of saying no. At some point a conditioning of the mind has occurred – and now the act of control exaggerates the effect.

And it makes sense; first we cannot control our own fantasies. Our mind is by design made to give us all sorts of fantasies. And secondly; fantasies about things we don’t want to fantasise about often occur more often! For example you may want to visit the classic example of “try not to think of a green giraffe”. If you really put in an effort and carefully try not to and monitor your success the opposite is more likely to happen; you will end up with a life where giraffes and concerns for them are filling up your mental space.

In turn, the control of our unwanted fantasies costs us the ability to say “no”. However, there is a way forward.
Say “no” and say “yes” to your fantasies
If you want to say “no” and accept the fantasies you are having. Not because your are certain they wrong or correct – but because, it is more important for you to be seen, heard and set boundaries. To “accept” is a idiosyncratic process and difficult to explain in depth. The best analogy is probably to let yourself have the experience of fantasies and bodily sensations; trust that your body is large enough and have the capacity to gently hold this experience. It may feel like you will brake but you will not all the sudden brake in two. And in the outside world – something new will happen. You will find out if the people around you really want to connect with you or just the pleasing facade. And then it is up to you to choose whether you want to cultivate that relationship.

In short, by saying “yes” to you fantasies allows you the possibility of saying “no”.

How to Voice a “No” empathically

Once you’ve acknowledged your fearful fantasies and are ready to accept that they fire together with the “no”, it’s time to look at how you can communicate your ‘no’ in a way that is strong and emphatic. There is no “right way” of saying no. However, there are ways of communicating that may make the receiver more receptive to what you have to say. Here is a somple three-step example on how-to:

  1. Validate others need and perspective: Start by validating others need. For example if someone asks you to help them with a task you can say – “I can see that you are busy and that you have a lot of things to do right now”.
  2. Explain how others invitation impacts you: Next explain how the request impacts you e.g. “When you ask me to do this task I get stressed.”
  3. Voice your “no”: The final step involves you saying clearly “no”. For example “I am sorry, I am unable to help you”.
  4. [Optional] Offering Alternatives: If you are readu to negotiate, suggest a different way you can contribute or make the other person’s life easier without compromising your own needs. E.g. “Can we take a look at the tasks I have and remove one of the others?”

When communicating maintain an open non-aggressive body language. Stand-up and maintain eye contact and use firm and clear tone. Remember, that it may not be possible to do this – and we may have to accept that our voice is a bit shaky at this is the best we can do until we have had more practice.

The Art of Handling Pushbacks

Expect that some people may not take your ‘no’ well and may even try to push you to change your mind. Here’s how to handle any resistance:

  • Dealing with Pushbacks: Be prepared to repeat the cycle of communication. It is ok for you to repeat your answer and stand firmly.
  • Do not explain why: Unless you are ready to negotiate or let go of your “no”, do not owe anyone an explanation beyond what you are comfortable providing. An explanation allows others to come up with solutions. For example; “I am unable to do X because I have no experience with this”. This opens up for all sorts of replies and solutions such as “It is ok, you can learn this”.
  • Trust that others can tolerate own feelings: Trust that whatever discomfort the receiver of the “no” experience, he or she can take care of it. It’s not ours responsibility to manage other people’s reactions.


In conclusion, saying “no” can be a challenging and necessary skill to have in both personal and professional settings. By noticing and accepting fearful fantasies we can start to take control more control when we want to say “no”, set boundaries and offer more intimate relationships where we make ourselves more seen.

Getting help

If you need help to start the practice of saying “no” when it is meaningful to we are ready to help! Just let us know and we will make sure, that you step-by-step train these life important skills. Contact us now to start your process.