How to say no without feeling bad about it (as told by a people-pleaser)

By Suzanne Elliot

Do you struggle to say no to the people in your life? You’re not alone. Here’s how to push back and lay down your boundaries, for a happier, less fraught existence

As a chronic people-pleaser, I have long struggled to say ‘no’ to others. As a result, I have found myself too often simmering with resentment and frustration, angry at myself for my inability to utter this most difficult of two-letter words.

Our lives are full of obligations, activities and demands from friends, family and colleagues. Of course, relationships are hugely rewarding and necessary, and they don’t come about by alchemy – they require investment and compromise on our part.

Read more: Six ways to create a major life change

But sometimes we invest too much, compromise too often. In the madness 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). Or 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 will leave you so fragmented, you’ll only be able to give small pieces of yourself to others – and at huge expense to your own personal wellbeing.

Learning to say no is powerful and will also make you – and those around you – happier. Here’s how.

Think about why you’re saying no

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 allowing yourself to concentrate on what’s important to you.

Before you accept or refuse an request or invitation, ask yourself whether you want to do this or if it’s something you feel you should say yes to. If you experience a sense of dread at the idea, don’t feel obligated to accept.

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 want to do. And, when you do commit, you’ll be firing on all cylinders.

Say no nicely

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. 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.

Give yourself a reason

Giving others – and yourself – an excuse as to why you can’t fulfil this particular commitment makes it easier to say no. Set yourself boundaries: if a certain friend is particularly challenging, decide to only see them in a group. Or give yourself rules, such as limiting yourself to going out twice during the working week.

Block out time for yourself in your diary. 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 gives you confidence to tell someone you won’t be able to make it.

Saying no makes you a better friend

And if you need any further convincing – studies have shown that taking care of yourself is the first step to looking after others.

Sometimes referred 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 is, in fact, the opposite of selfish.

Read more: Ed Stafford: Don’t avoid danger – it’ll help you become your best self

When you’re feeling content and fulfilled, it’s far easier to put the needs of others first; but if you’re overworked, stretched by conflicting demands, under appreciated, 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.

Become the person you want others to see

You teach people how to behave towards you and if you’ve marked yourself out as a people-pleaser, then they will see you as the go-to ‘yes’ person, the one willing to drop everything to do what they want.

One thing I’ve learnt is the more you say yes, the more people take your compliance for guaranteed – they can even start to believe they are doing it for you.

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, and your newfound assertiveness may take them a while to get used to. But keep preserving, they’ll soon get to love the new you.

Boost your confidence

If your self-worth is reliant on helping others, then you will fall into a trap of constantly looking after people – which will 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 desperate not to do, you’re saving your energy for a far worthier reason or person.

And 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 will give you a little shot of self-esteem.

But don’t stop saying yes

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 – is accepting obligations that may mean some sacrifice on your part. This could mean giving your neighbour a lift to the other end of town when their car breaks down, or visiting your friend with a broken leg.

Read more: How solo travel can re-balance your online dating gloom

These small gestures will give you the glow of helping others which studies 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, and is 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.

Three trips you don’t want to say no to

Explore the world and push your comfort zone with a group of like-minded solo travellers

Escape to blissful Bali

Travellers on a beach in Bali

From beautiful boutique hotels to mind-blowing sunsets, this 12-day escape to the Island of The Gods is your chance to unplug and power down. Climb a live volcano at sunrise, try anti-gravity yoga in the jungle highlands of Ubud and snorkel around a World War II shipwreck. Not to mention a three-day finale on an idyllic traffic-free coral island. Dreamy.

Hop on-board

A once-in-a-lifetime Japan adventure

Get a taste for the real Japan on this 13-day foray to Japan, taking in the sights and sounds of this land of contrasts. Learn the ancient art of ninja fighting at a warrior academy in Kyoto, come hiking and hot spring bathing in the Hakone mountains, and sample the very best of Japanese street food. Trust us, you don’t want to miss this mind-blowing trip.

Ready, set, go

Spirit yourself away to the Philippines

Bring out your inner Robinson Crusoe with this 13-day trip to the sandy white beaches of the Philippines, including a two-day private boat trip around the Bacuit Archipelago. Chill out on a hidden beach with a private chef, with star-gazing and all the wallow time you want in glistening emerald waters. There’s also quad-biking and paddle-boarding to be had, in Bohol’s dense tropical interiors.

Hello, happy

Images: Shutterstock, Flash Pack, Alexandra Vanescu, Andy Tootell, Frank Busch, Joshua Ness, Rodrigo Borges de Jesus on Unsplash


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