Learning to say no

No - such a small word but sometimes so difficult for us to use. It defines a boundary and acts to preserve us; preserve our integrity, preserve our self-image, preserve our sense of self and sense of self-worth. It can protect us from danger or from the threat of others.


Using the word can evoke a very real and strong physical set of markers i.e. the racing heart, the clammy hands, dry mouth and a sense of impending threat. It can cause us to feel anxious, to want to flee or perhaps just to 'switch off'.

So much of counselling is connected to this small word. When we don't use it, it can speak to the counsellor about the client's self-worth. Maybe it is so low that the client fears saying no because it might mean the person who is receiving the word might not want to be with the client after its use, might not like them anymore, or might seek to punish them for using it in some way.

To the counsellor, it might cause them to think the client has no boundaries and thus they might not be able to control what happens in their life. A lifetime of not being listened to can lead clients to this place.

“Why do I even bother to protest - it does not work. I will just stop saying no. I will accept I am powerless and of little consequence.”

It may be that using the word is associated with conflict. Conflict could mean that the client might have to come out of the self-defensive walls that they have built in order to preserve themself. The feeling of vulnerability that accompanies leaving (even partially) the safe place can be so overwhelming and disconcerting that the very last word the client will want to use is 'No'.

This is why the counselling relationship is so important. It can provide a safe place where a client can use the word 'No', where the client can explore the associations they have with the word.

It's a place where it is acceptable for the client to use the word 'No'. A place where the client is safe to explore what led them to use the word 'No'in the way they do or do not. This can be a place where, for just 50 minutes, the client can be vulnerable and still safe. A time where the vulnerability is kept - inaccessible all the rest of the time, thus providing a sense of security.

It is possible for the client, in session, to think about doing things differently. A place where they can think about how this will impact and affect their existence. A place where it is possible to try out different ways of being i.e. using the word 'No', and being safe from any negative consequences.

There is no time limit for arriving at a place where the client is comfortable to try this. It can take weeks, months or even years. That is OK. A skilful counsellor will be patient and willing to just hold that space for the client. A lifetime of negative reinforcement cannot be expected to be dispelled in the course of just a few sessions. When the client feels suitably safe and comfortable, the next stage of work can begin - should the client want it to. Some clients are OK with just being able to acknowledge the way their life has become.

So much of counselling is about enabling the client to arrive at a place where the potential for therapeutic change is present. It is always the client that decides to embrace the therapeutic change but should they do so the change can be massively impactful. Not only for the client but those around them as well. Also, it is a privilege for the counsellor to be able to witness this happening.

This therapeutic change can be fragile at first but with continuing sessions, the client can arrive at a place where the changed them is embedded and secure. A place where going back to not using the word 'No' is not even considered as an option.

At this stage, the therapeutic change is now embodied as the client's own persona and the counsellor can congratulate and also reflect on the progress the client has made. For this counsellor, no amount of money can come close to the reward of seeing a client achieving this different way of being.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Chelmsford CM1
Written by Steve Fayers, Counsellor / Therapist | Certified Trauma Therapist
Chelmsford CM1

I am a person, a counsellor, a parent, a flawed human being who has struggled with life. Struggled with addiction.
I would rather struggle than give in and accept a life that does not meet my needs and wants.
I am trying to be the best person I can be.
"I will not go quietly into that goodnight " (paraphrased Dylan Thomas)

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