Learning to say no: People-pleasing things I’ll never do in my 40s

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At times over the last 40 years, my life has represented a somewhat challenging obstacle course; I’ve jumped over hurdles and crawled in endless muddy ditches just trying to keep everyone happy and calm. 

Don’t get me wrong, I can lay down boundaries if I need. It’s just, most of the time, I prefer not to rock the boat. I know I’m not alone, either. People-pleasing is an instinct lots of us have.

It’s not a bad trait to have, of course, but it does become problematic when we put others needs first, seemingly steamrolling over our own. There’s a tendency to say “yes” to the extent of ignoring what matters most to us.

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Stress can be highly contagious

So, as my 40th birthday looms on the horizon, people-pleasing is one element of my 30s I won’t be taking into the next decade with me. As I raise a toast to a more carefree life, here are just a few behaviors that I’m pledging to avoid…

Firstly, taking on other people’s stress. It’s a truth of life that there will always be someone who is more stressed than you. And since stress typically thrives in a pressure-cooker environment, it can be highly contagious. As I’ve become older, I’ve realized that the decision to take on other people’s angst is actually (*whispers*) a choice. Who knew?

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Don’t hurl yourself headfirst into the drama

In fact, by taking on someone else’s upset over a situation – whether that’s a work project that’s gone off-piste or a family fallout – you may well end up fanning the flames of the crisis. Instead, you’re better off taking some distance. Have compassion, by all means, and give advice if you want to – just don’t hurl yourself headfirst into the drama. 

This is all the more true when someone comes to you with an “urgent” or “must be done right now” problem. Most of the time, this is simply a way of passing on pressure – even if it’s not intended as such – and you’ll do well to resist.

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Soon you’ll struggle to even know what your opinion is

Secondly, is saying “yes” when you really mean “no”. This is a biggie for any people-pleaser and it’s something I’ve grappled with hugely in the past. Agreeing to a project I know won’t work? Absolutely. Saying yes to an invite only to make an excuse the day before? Tick, tick.

The problem with the “being everything to everyone” approach is that it’s hugely draining and can often end in flakiness. You say “yes” in the moment, then spend the next however many days or weeks dialling back from that position – which is confusing for all involved. 

More worryingly, it teaches you to ignore your gut. Soon you’ll struggle to even know what your opinion or reaction to something is, because you’ve been so used to putting it on the back burner.

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What started off as a favor soon becomes an expectation

Thirdly, is working overtime. Back in my 20s, I’d go to any lengths to get my work done. Evenings, weekends, early starts; I didn’t think twice about breaking into my own personal time and lavishly sharing it round.

The thing is, no-one will thank you for it. At the most, your colleagues or boss might be grateful for a moment but they’ll soon get used to it. And, what started off as a favor soon becomes an expectation that rudely hijacks all areas of your life.

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There’s those solid attempts to rescue others

The other glaringly obvious issue with working overtime is that life is short. A cliché but true. However much you love your job, you’ll never look back and wish you’d spent more time working when you should have been investing in you time or out having fun. 

Then, of course, there’s those solid attempts to rescue others. Fairytales aside, it’s a rare situation in life where you can suddenly swoop in and fix someone’s complex or deep-rooted problem. You can provide help and support, of course, but equally it’s not your responsibility to play the overarching superhero.

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It’s enough to be present and help only where you can

Say, for example, two people you love are arguing with one another. In the past, I would have done whatever I could to restore a sense of peace. However, my 40-something self knows that I can step back and accept this is not on me to fix. Two grown-ups have all the tools they need to sort out their disagreements for themselves.

The same goes if a friend is grappling with addiction or stuck in a bad relationship; you can’t fix these problems (although you can burn yourself out trying). It’s enough to be present and help only where you can when asked.

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Your time is precious

Lastly, I’m leaving behind that niggling habit of failing to prioritize what matters to me. You see, that’s the big issue with people-pleasing; it really pleases no-one. Your time is precious. If you fail to keep checks on it, you’ll agree to everything you don’t want to do and leave no time for the things that you do. Helping anyone that asks simply means you’ll have have no energy left for those who count. 

By keeping a lid on this all-too-present reflex, you’ll make space for the relationships and ambitions that matter most in life. And really, what could be more important? 

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Images: Courtesy of Anna Brech

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