The Art of Saying ‘No’

Establishing Boundaries for Mental Health

Authored by Dr Gurveen Ranger, Clinical Psychologist, Adult Specialist at Sage Clinics

Learning to say no can be a powerful act of self-care. Often we get pulled into doing things we don’t want to do, or don’t have the time to do – usually driven by fear – of what others will think of us, feeling guilty, not wanting to appear rude or disobeying social and/or cultural norms. Then there’s also our own drivers such as fear of missing out (or FOMO as the millennials call it) …or simply not knowing how to say no!

Whatever the reason for finding it hard, learning how to say no empowers you to prioritize self-care, set boundaries, and regain control of your time and energy whilst looking after your mental health. Not saying no breeds uncomfortable emotions such as resentment, frustration – we try to avoid guilt but end up replacing it with something else that still doesn’t feel great! 

So how can we master this art? 

Phase 1 – Knowing 

  • Know Yourself – Pay attention to your emotions, values, beliefs and limits. Do you have certain beliefs about saying no? E.g., saying no is selfish? Where do they come from? What feelings commonly show up when you want to say no – is it guilt? With anyone/any situation in particular? So many questions we can ask ourselves to understand our blocks. When it comes to values – we may have a value to care for others, but at what point does saying yes to everything actually take you away from that value because you are so busy it is impossible to do everything well? When you are helping others, are you guiding or rescuing? 
  • Know Your Priorities – Are there specific domains in your life where you are more likely to give more than you have capacity to? Such as overcommitting at work, or fearing missing out socially? Take time to reflect on what is important to you in terms of what you give your time to, but also who. Which relationships are reciprocally enriching? These might be the ones where you prioritize, whereas there may be other relationships in your life where someone takes your assistance but doesn’t really give much back when you need it. 

Phase 2 – Practicing

  • Like with any skill, practice makes perfect. Start experimenting with saying no and setting boundaries in situations that are small or low key and build up from there to the more challenging situations where the stakes are higher. 
  • Think in advance about what you would want to say – for example how to say no in a way that is rejecting the request, rather than the person. 

Phase 3 – Communicating 

  • Let people know what you are comfortable with when a particular situation arises. 
  • Be firm but polite in your communication – remember you are saying no to the request not the person, and you are guiding not rescuing. 
  • Avoid over-justifying why you are saying no or being over-apologetic. And if possible, offer an alternative that might still be helpful or accommodating. This allows us to show we are willing, and that we care but that also we have boundaries. 
  • E.g., “I’m sorry I cannot do that today, but how about I look at it on Wednesday when I have more time.” Or “I’m sorry I cannot do that but how about I direct you to where you can find the information.”

Phase 4 – Consistency

  • And last but not least – be consistent in your approach. Once you have set a boundary and started saying no when necessary, stick to your decision. Over time, people will learn to respect these boundaries because they are here to stay! 

Remember, saying no is not about being selfish or uncaring. It is about self-respect, having healthy balanced relationships as well as activities, and good mental health. All of these allow us to focus on what matters and care in a way that is meaningful, as we will have greater capacity and focus to do so. 

So…what are you saying no to this week? 

You can find out more about Dr Gurveen Ranger and the team at Sage Clinics: here. For more information about the services Sage Clinics offers or to book an appointment please contact +971 4 575 5684, at or through the chat function in the bottom right corner of the Sage Clinics website.