Learning to Say "No": Breaking Free from People-Pleasing

Learning to Say “No”: Breaking Free from People Pleasing

Just when I’m about to give up, my mother picks up the phone. “What is it?” she asks. The snappy, intolerant tone coming out of the receiver is uncharacteristic for my mother. “What is it with you?” I reply. She tells me she can’t think right now let alone talk. She is on the way out of the door to drop my under-the-weather-brother a long list of things he has requested. Then she is supposed to drive across town to meet (redacted). I can tell by the venom in her voice that it is this second task that is the real cause of her angst this morning. “Didn’t you meet (redacted) recently”, I ask. She grumbles “yes”, and then hangs up. My mother drives one hour across town to visit (redacted) often. Each time this meeting rolls around she complains that she’s losing a whole day and each time I serve her the same question: “if breakfast with (redacted) is such a chore, then why not get rid of it? Just say no”. Her answer is a common one, one most of us are well acquainted with: “because I feel I should”.


Saying ‘no’ just isn’t in our nature


Humans are predisposed to overcommit as we are wired to seek approval or esteem from others of our kind. Therefore, we all fall on the people-pleasing spectrum. For some, people-pleasing can manifest mildly in stretching yourself a little thin from time to time, maybe not enjoying a dinner out because it’s one too many in a row. For others, people-pleasing has the opposite effect in that your instant ‘yes’ leads to later ‘no’s’; this person tends to overcommit and cancel so regularly that those around them have labelled them as flaky. For others, perhaps with low self-esteem, fear of abandonment or perfectionist traits, saying ‘no’ never feels like an option. So, no matter where you fall on the people-pleasing spectrum, exercising this two-letter word could do you, and those around you, a world of good.


For the people-pleaser, saving face takes precedence


There is someone in my life, someone very close to me, who falls on the more pathological end of the people-pleasing spectrum. Luckily for them and myself, they have wonderful insight into their abandonment issues. A people-pleaser, or, to use this person’s vernacular, a ‘please prostitute’, is someone who will say ‘yes’ to a request or offer when internally they’d prefer to say ‘no’. The pleaser will say ‘yes’ even irrespective of its gross inconvenience or the fact that it consumes time they don’t have. They will say ‘yes’ if it contradicts their values, or even if it is just downright unpleasant. Why though? Why would someone put themselves through this when they can just say ‘no’?

For the people-pleaser, saving face always takes precedence. Saying ‘yes’ means that you remain a) liked, b) avoid criticism, and c) avoid confrontation. We are all prone to this and do our fair share of ruminating on other people’s expectations or ideas of us. But if this is something you are preoccupied with and find yourself bending to at the expense of your own enjoyment, it might be time to re-evaluate this aspect of yourself. You may be reliable, but at what cost? What I find most interesting about my friend’s self-destructive nature is watching how their mood responds to their people-pleasing behaviours. Just like my mother on the phone that day, my friend’s positive mood decreases as they say ‘yes’ to everyone and everything.


External validation isn’t enough in the long run


It is no surprise that overcommitting results in psychological distress as well as feelings of resentment in interpersonal relationships. Difficulty saying ‘no’ has been closely linked to stress, burnout, substance abuse and depression according to research from the University of California. In addition to this, always prioritising other people’s needs poses risks to your mental health in the long run. If you are making decisions based on external validation, there is little opportunity to get to know what you really need. Indifference to oneself, that is, disregard of your genuine desires, values or aversions, will lead to identity confusion later down the track, which will also inhibit your capacity to experience genuine connection and intimacy with friends or a partner. Life is far too short to live in a reactive, passive state. When you learn to exercise ‘no’, the world becomes a different place. You are no longer running, juggling, or jumping over whatever is thrown your way but are comfortable, calm and in control. You become an agent of your own existence. We all complain about fatigue, stress, burnout – that there aren’t enough hours in the day – fed up because we haven’t opened a book in months. It doesn’t need to be this way. We can all benefit from learning to use the two-letter-word more liberally.


Remember: saying ‘no’ often means being able to say ‘yes’

Here are some useful tips and things to remember for the next time you’re put on the spot:

  1. Learn your yes:

Reframe your thinking. If you overcommit to things that you don’t really want to do because you feel guilty or fear you’ll be missing out, instead try to think about all the things you are saying ‘yes’ to, by saying ‘no’. For example, in saying ‘no’ to filling in on your friend’s Tuesday evening footsul team and the subsequent beers at the pub, you might be saying ‘yes’ to quality time with your family, having a much-needed bath, opening that book you’ve been wanting to start, or preparing your lunch for the next day so you don’t buy it AGAIN. Focusing on your priorities will strengthen your ‘no’.

  1. Sleep on your answer:

Sometimes you may genuinely want to say ‘yes’ right away, and when you do, go for it. But if you’re someone who feels pressured to say ‘yes’ and later regret it, please sleep on it. This gives you time to consider the other commitments on your schedule. If it is a ‘yes’, the next day, then great, at least it is coming from a place of desire, not obligation. If it is a ‘no’, then now you have the time to come up with a good way to say so.

  1. Conviction:

If it’s a ‘no’ then make it a strong one, especially if you have a history of saying ‘yes’, a lot. Avoid language to the likes of “I don’t think I can” or “I’m not sure”. Language like this will only work to confuse you as it starts to conflate obligation and desire. It also gives the other person the opportunity to push back to somewhere you don’t want to be, like driving one hour across town to drink a coffee.

  1. Rationalise:

The indecision of the situation is not forever, and neither is the discomfort of letting someone down. Usually, they won’t even mind and if they do, they’ll be over it quicker than you think. Don’t forget, the person you’re saying ‘no’ to is a human too, they also let people down.

  1. Everyone benefits:

Finally, learning when to say ‘no’ means that when you do show up, you’re doing so in your best form. You might like to think about it metaphorically via the safety demonstration prior to take off when the airline encourages you to attend to your own life jacket before others. So, if you’re still feeling guilty, just think that really you’re doing everyone a favour!


If you think you might be a people-pleaser but aren’t quite sure, have a read through some telltale signs. Or if you know you struggle with saying ‘no’ effectively, you can read more about how to start in Dr Aziz Gazipura’s book Not Nice. Finally, having tailored, individual support from a good psychologist can really help.