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  • Writer's pictureSarah Dresser

The Right and Wrong Way to Say No to Set Healthy Boundaries

As you learn to stop people pleasing there is simply no way to avoid saying no. Yet, the very idea of setting boundaries may evoke feelings of guilt and anxiety. You may find yourself backing down from your boundaries and minimizing your needs.

But the consequences of always saying yes can lead to resentment, depression and burnout for you, and strained relationships with others.

So I have provided you with steps you can follow to say no the right way. I have also highlighted common traps and pitfalls to avoid. I intend that, by the end of this, you will see your own boundaries as essential and can say no effectively, with ease and guilt-free. Read on to learn more.

How to Say No to Set Healthy Boundaries

Before You Say No: Understand Your Wants, Needs, Limits and Boundaries

While you cannot always anticipate when you will have to say no, you can still prepare. Saying no may feel emotional at first. But if you have a clear idea of your wants, needs and boundaries, it will be much easier to know both when and why to say no, and have the confidence to do so.

To begin, I recommend you document your wants, needs, and boundaries.

Let's break down what each one means.

1. Identify your wants, needs, limits and boundaries

You are the only person who knows all of your wants and needs. And they exist independently of anyone else's.


Your needs are the essentials, the non-negotiables, as vital as oxygen, food and sleep.


Wants add to your quality of life and keep you in optimal health and well-being. They are desires. You deserve to enjoy life too!


Limits are related to your resources such as money, energy and time.


Boundaries are the rules by which you teach others what is and is not acceptable in the ways that they interact with you.

Begin by documenting them, starting with your essential needs. As you do so, you will also start to become aware of your wants, limits and boundaries. Here are some categories you can use for this exercise:

  1. your time (time alone, with one person, with groups, time spent at work or other activities and time limits)

  2. your values

  3. energy and sleep

  4. your mind and emotions (your right to think for yourself and acknowledge your emotions as separate and valid)

  5. ethics and morals

  6. money and finances (who and what you spend money on, decisions to spend or save)

  7. material and digital possessions

  8. your environment (work, home, elsewhere)

  9. basic food and water needs

  10. your body and personal space limits and needs

  11. sexual preferences and limits

  12. language used to address you or in conversation with you or about you

2. Identify Your Flexible vs. Fixed Boundaries

Now that you have a written record of your wants, needs, limits and boundaries, you can use this list to reflect on which are fixed and which are flexible.

For example, you may work overtime on another day, just not on the particular day you were asked. This is a flexible boundary.

However, you may never agree to lend a friend money because it compromises your morals. You may never tolerate someone using foul language to you or in front of you. You may have a policy of always finishing work at a certain time. These are fixed boundaries.

Fixed boundaries are related to your morals, limits and priorities.

The Right and Wrong Way to Say No

When the time comes to say no, although you may be able to say the word, there are ways that you can still sabotage yourself. So here are some guiding principles to help you say no effectively, and common traps to avoid.

Do Be Assertive By Using "I" Statements

You may feel emotional when saying no. I assure you that this is completely normal. This may be one of the first times you are speaking up for yourself.

To diffuse the emotion, use "I" statements.  Doing so allows you to clearly express your wants, needs or boundaries. This not only helps you assert yourself but also gives the other person an opportunity to understand you.

Don't Be Aggressive or Defensive. Avoid "You" Language

Avoid using "You" language. The risk with using "You" language is that it may come across as an accusation or judgement. You also miss the opportunity to state your want, need or boundary.

Whatever you suspect or know about the other person's intentions, when you use "I" language you not only remain more objective, but you also retain your personal power.

Remember that saying no and setting boundaries are acts of self-respect. You do not need to accuse someone else or defend yourself.

Do Express Your Feelings (Optional)

This is not a necessary step but if you feel that you trust the person then, at least once, express your feelings. A good example is "I feel overwhelmed when you make these last minute requests".  Keep this succinct.

Do Not Apologize For How You Feel

Do not allow anyone to deny how you feel. The intent of the other person may not be the same as the impact you feel. Expressing how you feel with someone who has good intentions may actually help the relationship if you both honour each other's perspective. Two different truths can co-exist. But, if someone ignores or rejects how your feelings, remember that your emotions are still valid.

Do Explain Your Need, Limit or Boundary

In addition to saying no, you can and, in most cases, should express your want, need, priority or boundary. If you choose to explain the "why" behind you decision to say no, keep it short and to the point. If you are not comfortable giving a reason why, you can simply decline the request. Again, use "I" statements such as "I can't...", "I won't...", "I don't do..." and so on.

If the other person responds with a willingness to listen and demonstrates empathy, then you may have a future ally to support you in your boundaries.

Do Not Lie, Justify or Over-Explain

There is a subtle but significant difference between explaining your perspective and justifying yourself. If you try to justify your reason for saying no, you risk giving away your personal power.

Do not beg for understanding as you may begin to erode your boundaries. You do not need to justify yourself.

Do not lie to avoid expressing your wish or need.  Be truthful with everything you say. You do not have to explain. Remember that "No" is a complete sentence.

Do Apologize For Inconvenience

If saying no results in disappointment for the other person, you may want to offer a brief apology. It is important that you clarify that you are apologizing for the inconvenience, not for the boundary itself.

As you develop comfort in saying no, you will find that you can appreciate others' wants and needs while maintaining your own boundaries.

Do Not Apologize Repeatedly

Ensure that you apologize once, not repeatedly. Perhaps you can think of a person who comes back again and again with the same request or to remind you in some way of their disappointment. Repeated apologies can undermine your boundaries and imply that you're in the wrong for prioritizing your needs. You are not. You have every right to set limits to show others how to treat you and what to expect from you.

Do Be Prepared for Resistance

Not everyone will respond positively to your boundaries. Others may test your limits consciously or subconsciously, as a result of learned relationship dynamics or the surrounding culture. Remember that no-one is a mind reader but you can stop finding excuses for those who repeatedly ignore or try to override your boundaries.

Optional: Practice Cord Cutting. In the case where you feel an unhealthy connection with someone, you may wish to practice cord cutting. I utilize this practice as one of several ways to guide the listener to find personal freedom in my Meditation to Heal from Toxic and Dysfunctional Relationships.

Don't Continue the Conversation Longer Than Needed

In some cases, you may see there is no willingness to understand your perspective or accept your right to say no. Language that minimizes or dismisses your needs may be a cue for you to set firmer, less flexible boundaries with the person. You may wish to reiterate your needs without anger, accusations or apology.

If there is still no empathy or acknowledgement of your needs, remove yourself from the situation. It is your choice as to whether you open up communication again at a later date.

Do Set Up Future Boundaries

End the conversation by stating what is needed in the future. For example, if the issue is lack of time, suggest how they can respect your time by giving you more notice. If it is a task that can be shared, remind the person that you are not their only resource.

Don't Violate Your Fixed Boundaries

If this is something you will never say yes to, make this clear. Be proactive whenever you have the opportunity to state and set your fixed boundaries. Do not compromise yourself. You may feel guilty for feeling as if you are letting someone down, but you are, in fact, standing up for yourself.

Do Practice Self-Compassion

You may be carrying resentment and a build-up of frustration because you have not been able to express yourself effectively in the past. This may mean that you initially struggle to keep language neutral and unemotional. You may express more emotion than you wish to when saying no.

Just like any new skill, you will not do it perfectly all the time. But just like any skill it will get easier as you practice. Practice self-compassion with every success and every misstep.

Don't Blame Yourself For Saying No

You may feel guilty in the moment but continue to remind yourself that your needs are not inferior to anyone else's. Just as you would not deny your need for oxygen, all of your needs are essential.

You are assuming that everyone wants you to say yes. Some may want this but others may be happy and even relieved for you, and enjoy the greater openness and honesty between the two of you.

Final Thoughts

I hope these guidelines have helped you gain clarity. If, after reading this, you recognize yourself as a people pleaser, you may find my article on How to Stop Being a People Pleaser helpful.

Boundaries setting is not a one time act but an ongoing process. It may also require more effort at first. Remember that you are learning a new vocabulary and navigating new territory as you establish healthy boundaries. It will get easier and will become second nature to you.

As I have said before, every yes is also a no to everything else. Be sure that you are not consistently saying no to yourself.

Setting boundaries does not only benefit you. As you get more comfortable saying no and set healthy boundaries, you become a role model for others. Notice who is prepared to change and grow with you.

And those who used to use you will soon learn to stop making unreasonable requests.

If you need more support, listen to my Stop People Pleasing Affirmations below.  I also have a Stop People Pleasing Meditation on my Youtube channel. To understand more about the root cause of people pleasing you can read this blog article to Know if You Are a People Pleaser.

Thank You For Reading

Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Sarah Dresser and I am a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist.

I made the decision to leave my corporate career after 17 years because my values lie in providing support for individuals rather than corporations. I have worked as a Clinical Hypnotherapist for a decade now.  After quitting my corporate career, I designed my work to be able to offer over 95% of my work to all with no pay barrier.

Sarah Dresser Clinical Hypnotherapist

My mission is to provide low-cost and no-cost therapy and support for all. My work is inspired by models of sustainable communities and concepts from the Gift Economy.

My passion is demonstrating the ability of hypnotherapy to heal even lifelong issues. 

You can read more about those changes and my own experience of the power of the subconscious mind to heal even a decade-long issue here.

Support My Work

If you have benefitted from my work, please donate to support me here on PayPal or through Donorbox.  Donations help sustain my work so I can continue to provide support for all.

Access My Work For Free

You can access over 200 hypnosis, meditation and affirmation sessions on my YouTube channel here. You can now download all my work as MP3s from the Unlock Your Life MP3 store. And you can also get all MP3s you purchase in your very own private podcast feed. Learn more here about how to get your own Unlock Your Life private podcast feed.

As always, I am here to support you on your journey, Sarah

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