How to say no without feeling bad about it (as told by a people-pleaser)
Do you struggle to say no to the people or requests in your life? You’re not alone. As a chronic people-pleaser, I have long struggled to say ‘no’ to others. As a result, I have found myself often simmering with resentment and frustration, angry for not setting healthier boundaries and uttering this most difficult of two-letter words. Our lives are full of obligations, activities and demands from friends, family, colleagues and society. Of course, relationships are hugely rewarding and necessary, and they don’t come about by alchemy – they require investment and compromise. But sometimes we invest too much, compromise too often.
In the pace of modern life, many of us tie ourselves in knots trying to please everyone but ourselves, only to be left depleted and irritated. It may be because we’re filling a void with endless distractions, or in feverish pursuit of trying to live up to societal expectations (the cult of busyness). Perhaps we want to be liked or not be seen as selfish. Whatever the reason, we are often guilty of filling our time with the needs of others.
Yet, conversely, constantly trying to please people can have a negative impact on our relationships; always saying yes can leave us so fragmented and only able to give small pieces of ourself to others – and at huge expense to our own personal wellbeing. Learning to say no is powerful and can make us – and those around us – happier.
Focus on the good saying no will bring
Saying no isn’t about shedding your responsibilities or shutting yourself off, it’s about gaining the strength to give the very best of yourself and concentrating on what’s important to you. Before you accept or refuse a request or invitation, ask yourself whether you want to do it. Is it something you have capacity for? If you experience a sense of dread at the idea, don’t feel obligated.
Focus on the good saying no will bring. Thinking about it in a positive light can make it easier to stick to your intention. You need to say no to the things you don’t want to do in order to say yes to the things you do. And, when you do commit, you’ll be firing on all cylinders.
This is not an exercise in losing friends, but rather about putting yourself in a position to give more to your relationships. Like any learned behaviour, it will take practice to override your default ‘yes’ setting.
Give yourself rules if you’re over-committing to others
Learn how to turn people down without offending them, but do it decisively. Not giving a straightforward answer can be far more infuriating for the person on the receiving end, as well as stressful and time-consuming for you.
Giving others — and yourself — a truthful excuse as to why you can’t fulfil a particular commitment can make it easier to say no, though it’s not always needed. Set yourself boundaries: if a certain friend is particularly challenging, decide to only see them in a group. Or give yourself rules if you’re over-committing to others, such as limiting yourself to going out twice during the working week.
Block out time for yourself in your diary, too. No one needs to know what you’re doing, in fact you don’t need to be doing anything – but knowing that time is yours can give confidence to tell someone you won’t be able to make it.
If you’re overworked, you’re running on empty
If you need any further convincing, studies have shown that taking care of yourself is the first step to looking after others. Sometimes referred to as the oxygen mask theory (when on a plane you’re advised to put one on before assisting someone else with theirs) the idea is that you’ll be in a stronger position to help others – and that it’s the opposite of selfish.
When you’re feeling content and fulfilled, it’s far easier to have capacity to help others; if you’re overworked, stretched by conflicting demands, underappreciated, worried about money or relationships, you’re running on empty. You’re not doing anyone a favour by rocking up to a party with a long face and spending the night morosely sipping warm white wine, wishing you were sitting on your sofa.
We often teach people how to behave towards us and, if we’ve marked ourself out as a people-pleaser, that can make us the go-to ‘yes’ person. The one willing to drop everything at our own expense. One thing I’ve learnt is the more you say yes, the more people take your compliance for granted – they can even start to believe they are doing it for you.
The more you practise assertiveness, the more confident you will feel
I cat sat repeatedly for some friends; at first willing, but as their gratitude turned to expectation, I became increasingly resentful. When they next asked, I was honest with them and they were genuinely surprised – they believed that I had wanted to, that in fact, they were doing me a favour (I was living in a flatshare at the time). When they next asked, they were far more flexible. Others can be rather bewildered when you suddenly start breaking out of your people-pleasing character. Your newfound assertiveness may take them a while to get used to. Keep preserving as they’ll soon get to love the new you.
If your self-worth is reliant on helping others, then you will fall into a trap of constantly looking after people – which can leave you feeling resentful and deflated – which you then counter by continuing to please people, thinking that’s the answer. It’s not. Have confidence that you’re saying no to a request, not a person; that by turning down a demand or invitation, you’re saving your energy and can give it more authentically at a later point.
The more you practise assertiveness, the more confident you will feel, putting you in stronger position to help those who need your help – which in turn can give you a little shot of self-esteem.
Small gestures can give you the glow of helping others
If you’re new to saying no, it might take some time to figure out the right balance and be a case of trial and error. Invest your time in a way that gives you meaning, which involves not just accepting the fun stuff in life. Equally as rewarding – and as vital in sustaining relationships and providing you with a sense of purpose – can be accepting obligations that mean some sacrifice on your part. This could be giving your neighbour a lift to the other end of town when their car breaks down, or visiting your friend with a broken leg.
These small gestures can give you the glow of helping others, which research shows can make us feel better. A 2017 study published in Nature found a link between happiness and generous behaviour, including volunteering one’s time. It’s what psychologists call pro-social behaviour. It’s believed to reinforce our sense of relatedness to others and our sense of self in this world. But, remember, if these gestures start tipping over into expectation and reliance, then it’s time to put your foot down.
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