• Those of us who feel uncomfortable saying no are actually doing ourselves are disservice and often struggle with healthy boundaries

  • Josephine Cropper explains why this is common in adults and why it can be damaging to us

  • If you are looking for a therapist, you can find one here

Do you know how to say “no"? It's such a small word but often one of the most difficult to say.

Those of us who feel uncomfortable saying no are actually doing ourselves are disservice and often struggle with healthy boundaries.

So what are boundaries? Boundaries are a way in which we keep ourselves mentally healthy and safe. We can see and feel physical boundaries. Have you ever had the experience of speaking to someone and feeling he or she was just too close? You move away and he or she still moves in on your space. We can see and feel these boundaries but mental boundaries are not quite so tangible.

I spend a great deal of my time in the therapy sessions helping people with this particular issue. We go through life wondering why we feel exhausted and why some people seem to drain us, and not knowing quite what we can do about it. How do you know if your boundaries are too restricting and therefore depleting your energy?

An example I often give is if you were at a party and could see someone who was sad, would you feel the need to rush over and help them before you could enjoy yourself? Or would you feel okay knowing you were enjoying yourself before noticing someone who was a little sad and in need of your help?

The therapeutic term for this is “symbiosis". This is a relationship in which two or more individuals behave as though between them they form a single person.

Within a couple's relationship there are times when this is appropriate - for example if one person is ill we then may have to rely on another. The effect of symbiosis is that part of us is effectively cut off and not available to us. How do we overcome this?

We must first become aware that this is what is happening - but we must certainly not be critical of ourselves. We must notice if there are particular situations in which this is highlighted; for example, for some people it might be in a relationship with a particular friend (“I know I'll always be on the phone for hours listening when x rings").

We need to be comfortable being healthily assertive and this will strengthen the Adult part of us.

Notice what age you feel when you are in this situation - people are often surprised at how young they feel. As we work together the client actually becomes aware of feeling a different age and he or she starts to grow up.

Why is it that two and three year olds can say it with ease – “no" often being their favourite word - yet as adults we struggle? What does “no" imply? What does it mean for us? Often when we are little we are taught to say “please" and “thank you" and we learn that in many situations it's not polite or not okay to say “no"... “No I'm not going to do that" or “No I'm not joining in" or “No, I'm not willing to speak to you right now." It's as if somehow a mysterious “we should" has come over us growing up. Saying no is not just about being assertive; it's about allowing ourselves to be seen. What do I mean by being seen?

Being seen is the difference between doing favours for others and often feeling disappointed at the end of it, rather than simply doing favours for others whilst feeling okay. The first instance - albeit unconsciously - covers past hurts.

How many of us would like to be in the second situation but are actually in the first? What is it about saying no that is so difficult for us?

Ask any parent of a three year old who is kicking and screaming on the supermarket floor how easy it is for the child to say “no! no! no!." Why can we do this at three years of age but often not as adults?

Often without realising it we believe we are only worthwhile when we help others, but the truth is that if we over give to others and under give to ourselves we will exhaust ourselves.

What are our needs - do we want to always appear helpful?

If I could give one gift to the world it would be to help people with this particular issue. It is extremely common. So if this is you, you are not alone!

Further reading

How to be assertive and set healthy boundaries

Sometimes self-care means saying no

Co-dependency, authenticity, and saying no

Why we need to build boundaries in our lives