How to Learn to Say No

BJJ training with Inglorious Grapplers UK — Photo from the author

If you’ve ever thought that therapy may be worthwhile, but are trepidatious to put a foot through the door, boxing, although unconventional, can be an alternate means of self-discovery through an ironically gentler nudge.

I began boxing because I had a deeply ingrained habit to put other people’s needs above my own, a pattern I developed to survive an emotionally void and unstable support system in my childhood. The repression of feelings, whether or not they are anger or rage, have consequences down the line, and these patterns encroach upon every angle of your life.

Gabor Mate’s book “When The Body Says No” has countless stories of patients that developed autoimmune diseases from the fact that they couldn’t say “no”, due to the repression of stress.

The ability to say “no”, for such people who come from circumstances similar to mine, requires a great deal of courage in the face of extreme fear. Saying “no” to an abusive or mentally unstable parent has all kinds of ill consequences that get etched into your body’s muscle memory that remain with you.

Having worked with many vocal clients that come from traumatic backgrounds, you see firsthand the ways the body has tried to protect itself from having these feelings repeat themselves and the efforts the body and mind will go to avoid having to face them. In my case, my sense of self and needs as a child were supplanted to become the “adult” to fulfill the needs of a dependent parent.

I had lost that most pivotal period in which to build a sense of individuation, reliance, and social cohesiveness. My existence, or sense of identity, was an illusory “role” hoist upon me, and what lay behind the role was utter emptiness, which, curiously, is exactly the place you need to find.

It is, however, the place you run from the most, filled with grief for a lost childhood that is excruciating when you come face to face with it. Causing any upset within a house already teetering on the edge, was a conflict to be avoided, so out of the myriad of complexes I had to create, never saying “no” was one of them.

Trying to please everyone, despite the rage and shame boiling underneath the pleasant exterior, only gets you so far, furthermore, disassociation from the body is common for sufferers of trauma or abuse and walking around in a heavy-laden shell is not sustainable. A friend suggested I do the thing I fear to do; that it is acceptable to have a voice and that your feelings are allowed to impact another’s life. In this case, boxing provided a hearth to thaw my body and a space to explore my ability to affect, emotionally and physically, others in a safe and witnessed way. By safe, I mean an environment free of judgment, as you tend to cop a few black eyes!

I used to be an amateur fighter and was mentored by Pradeep Singh, a middle-weight champion of numerous titles, a technical and beautiful fighter, and just as intuitive as a coach. The relationship you develop with a boxing or MMA coach is not too dissimilar from a therapist in a strange way; they push you, critique you, and ask you to go to places within yourself you may not want to go to.

They are by your side at your lowest and raise your hand at the highest. Pradeep was all these things and a great friend. Having “retired” from competitive boxing and now focusing my efforts on Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, the camaraderie you build with a team of grapplers is just as supportive and insightful.

It is the role of empathetic witness that both a therapist and a coach offer the student. When the student looks in the eyes of their coach they see their own needs reflected back at them, rather than the harbinger of anxious-attachment styles when an infant looks in their mother’s eyes and only sees the needs of the mother reflected. It is someone who validates your feelings free of judgment and who creates a safe environment in order for them to flourish.

A child can experience her feelings only when there is somebody there who accepts her fully, understands her, and supports her. If that person is missing, if the child must risk losing the mother’s love of her substitute in order to feel, then she will repress emotions.
Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self

Granted, not all coaches are made of the same mettle, but equally not all therapists are cut from the same cloth. Like anything, you won’t know until you try.

You learn to say NO!

One day, in my first few months sparring in the cage, I was saddled with a much bigger and experienced fighter. This was MMA rules, I was taken down quickly, gave up mount position, and from there he beat the hell out of me!

I’ve been practicing and teaching boxing for almost 7 years now, and I’ve come to recognize certain personality types that tend to have difficulty noticing their power output. The beatdown I suffered from him was not intentional I believe, but much the same way an amateur guitarist doesn’t realize that his volume is blasting holes in the eardrums of his audience!

Indeed, this fighter, as the years went on, tended to display a lack of restraint and resulted in an alienation of sorts due to no one wanting to spar with him. Boxing is a team sport after all. I’ve often wondered why boxing was able to teach me my limits but not so for this fellow who was, by all means, a very decent and kind-hearted man. The only thing I could pinpoint is that, like therapy, you have to be open to listening, to change, and that it takes some measure of responsibility to improve yourself.

Back to the point at hand, the crux is I could’ve said “stop” at any time. The MMA coaches aren’t going to throw in the towel for you if you’ve given your word to be a sparring partner and are they are likely to assume that you know when to say “enough is enough”.

My fear of saying “no” trumped my fear of a battering.

The role of protector, the one who never admits helplessness or defeat, the one never wants to displease another, kept the punches raining down upon me. I came off those mats, went to a corner to stretch, and surprisingly began crying because I realized I allowed that to happen. Recall that saying “no” risked conflict and that such conflict could tear down the illusory “roles” I had built to preserve what notion of identity I was able to create to survive emotionally.

You have got to say “no” in life — many of us go through life not realizing we harbor this pattern, as evidenced in Gabor Mate’s book, and thus boxing was simply a flicker of light that finally illuminated a lifelong held pattern.

Saying “no” takes practice due to the pattern being exactly that, a habit. It takes time to undo and boxing tends to provide a means of repetition to aid that undoing as you come across the same event many times over. I would be lying if I said I had completely learned how to say “no” after the first instance, it had to happen a few more times for me to let go of the pattern. And it was only in therapy that I learned how it was created.

Learning functions as a cycle that goes something like this: Two Steps Forward. One Step Back.

So if you find yourself making the same mistake, that is perfectly acceptable and normal, all you have to do is come back the next day and be infinitesimally more mindful than you were yesterday. Eventually, when someone is punching a little too hard for a sparring session, these words may pass your mouth

“Hey mate, can we take it down a notch, it’s a Tuesday night, and we’re here to learn, and neither of us can do that if we feel like we’ll both end up with concussions?” What you’ll find is that your team-mate will usually end up saying something like “sure mate, no worries, why don’t you set the pace?”.

Not so bad.

When you have a fear of saying “no” your body stimulates deeply rooted beliefs that ignite fight or flight behaviors. This cascade of autonomic physiological adjustments shuts down your ability to empathize, listen, and create social cohesion, the very requirement for creating an open line of communication, which is what trauma therapists call a negative feedback look. Thus, it will take your body time, and repetition, to detach fear to the act of speaking up and asserting your boundaries. Be patient with yourself.

The Final Hurdle

It took me a very long time to commit to punching someone in the face. It went against every grain of truth I thought I had to uphold in order to keep some semblance of an identity. The protector. The servant. When I finally started sparring, and no longer accepted to be the punching bag just so that I wouldn’t have to hit another, bit by bit, the walls around a very fragile ego, sundered. Like, walking into a therapists office, you don’t know what you may find, and I recall after one sparring day having entered what is known as “the zone”, where you are performing at peak efficiency and times seems to slow down, I completely dominated a fellow fighter. After the session finished, feelings that had laid dormant for a long time erupted. It was a shedding of one skin which opened me up to the possibility of creating one of my own choosing. A second birth, or as is seen cross-culturally, a coming of age. It was perfectly acceptable and healthy for myself to assert my position, and that I didn’t have to absorb the blows so another could thrive.

In fact, what you come to learn, is that a deeply rooted belief like not punching someone can actually be in itself a selfish act. If I don’t “fight back” my partner cannot learn completely and I am depriving him of the chance to advance himself. Don’t be too attached to your ideologies, they have a way of creating tunnel vision through good intentions, and they tend to be the first to fall when a therapist starts digging a little deeper into the patterns you’ve created.

Ultimately, in order to grow, you have to be tested, and it typically tends to be by confronting the serpent that guards your worst fears. Boxing is an unconventional way that allows you to explore your emotions through physicality. Seeing a therapist typically involves a great deal of intellectualism, which ironically, is a defense habit many abuse sufferers develop to avoid feeling too deeply. The body, however, does not lie nor can it be deceived without repercussions down the line. The body, not just the mind, holds the score of our abuse, and to make any kind of headway requires some sort of thawing to be applied to the body in greater or equal measure to the abuse that it suffered. The reason why boxing is so effective is because the only person you’re fighting in the ring is yourself!

Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.

Why boxing, it promotes violence!

Does it promote violence? Well, that’s an article for another time, but from my lived, grounded experience, the character-building discipline, and esteem forged within the ropes results on the contrary.

Is it dangerous? Sure it is but a report in 1983 estimated a fatality rate of 0.13 deaths per 1,000 participants per year in the ring and this rate has steadily been declining (American Medical Association, 1983; cf. Cantu, 1995).

In an article published in the Clinical Neuropsychological Journal, “this fatality rate is lower than or similar to the rates of other high-risk sports, such as college football, motorcycle racing, scuba diving, mountaineering, hang gliding, sky diving, and horse racing.”

Finally, boxing builds character, teaches you to respect others and yourself, and makes you aware of your shit! It follows a learning cycle of two steps forward, one step back, that promotes humility. And you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Works Cited

Mate, G. (2019). When the Body Says No. Vermilion; 2 edition (3 Jan. 2019)

Robert L. Heilbronner, Shane S. Bush, Lisa D. Ravdin, Jeffrey T. Barth, Grant L. Iverson, Ronald M. Ruff, Mark R. Lovell, William B. Barr, Ruben J. Echemendia, Donna K. Broshek. (2009). Neuropsychological Consequences of Boxing and Recommendations to Improve Safety: A National Academy of Neuropsychology Education Paper. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology. Volume 24, Issue 1, Pages 11–19.

Voice Coach and Founder of Orator | Masters in Voice Studies, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama | Currently Coaching in London |

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