People-Pleasing and the Art of Saying “No”
Updated: Nov 21
My name is Olive and I’m a recovering people-pleaser. I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to make other people happy. Often at a great expense to myself. People-pleasers go to great lengths to make sure other people’s needs are met, often while ignoring their own needs. They have a driving need to make sure other people are taken care of and happy and have a deep need to be liked or viewed positively.
One of the most common manifestations of people-pleasing: The inability to say “no”. If you struggle with saying “no”, read on.
Many of us come by our people-pleasing tendencies honestly, often through traumatic experiences. We may learn experientially or subconsciously that in order to be loved or feel safe, we must put our needs aside.
I was so that person. If I was tired and you asked me to come over because you needed to talk, I was there. If you needed something of mine, I would give it to you. I couldn’t say no. I was crippled with indecision, like I mean crippled, when I feared I might be letting someone down if I chose my own wants. Hell, I stayed in an unhealthy relationship about 7 years longer than I should have because I was so fixated on their needs rather than what I wanted.
And do you know what happened?
It made me sick. Not only exhausted and anxious all the time, but actually sick. I’ve developed a few cute little chronic health issues that I am certain are tied to my poor boundaries (read inability to say no) and lack of sense of self.
I have been in people-pleasing recovery for the last 8 years or so and I am happy to report it gets better. Way better. I still struggle but I have a far deeper sense of myself as a separate entity from the people I love, with my own needs and desires, far better boundaries, and a hell of a lot more energy and way less resentment and anxiety.
While this blog is too short to go into all my boundary building skills (see my upcoming Boundary Badass course for a more in-depth look at building boundaries https://www.olivevontopp.com/boundary-badass), here are 3 things I did to find my “no”:
1. Did My Thought Work
I could go on and on about this (it’s in most of my blogs), but I’ll try and make it brief. Because I (now) know that your thoughts create your feelings, which drive your actions, in order to stop people-pleasing, I had to get a better understanding of my thoughts that were driving the bus.
What was the story I was telling myself about “no”?
I had to take deep hard look at what I was making “no” mean. Why did I see it as a bad thing? What was I afraid would happen if I said “no”? How was I socialized to view “no”?
When I took a hard look, I realized I was scared that people wouldn’t like me (aka love me) if I said “no”. I was terrified of disappointing people and subconsciously thought that the key to keeping people in my life was to always be available/agreeable.
I’ve had to do a lot of healing around. Here are some thoughts that keep me grounded and remind me that I am, in fact, loveable AND allowed to say “no”:
Do I not love or like people in my life that say “no” to me?
No, not at all. In fact, some of my closest relationships are those I can trust to say “no” to me. It’s relieving to know that someone will take care of their own needs and that I don’t have to guess or worry about them secretly being upset with me (cuz… people pleasing).
The people I want to invest time and energy in are the people who can respect my “no”
I don’t have time or energy for people who don’t respect my “no”s. I have limited resources and the relationships I want to invest in are the ones where we respect each other’s boundaries.
“No” isn’t a dirty word
In fact, “no” is a wonderful word. It tells us and others what is right for us, what we want, and is a way to honour our boundaries and ourselves. It is the key to more energy, joy, and pleasure.
Some mantras I use to help me find my “no” are...
My needs are as important as anyone else’s
I am allowed to say “no”
I am not responsible for managing other people’s emotions (including their disappointment in my “no”)
2. Got Familiar with what “No” feels like in my body
This one took some time (and I continue to explore it more deeply) but I started paying more attention to what was happening in my body when I was a “no”. What sensations came up? Where was I tensing? What was my body trying to tell me? Instead of overriding it with my thoughts about who I might be disappointing or what it might mean, I started paying attention to the cues from my body. What does “no” feel like? What does it feel like when I am a “no” but ignore it? What happens? Your body knows. And if you don’t listen, believe me, it will find a way to get you to.
3. Started with Small “No”s
Saying “no” is a muscle you need to work to get stronger. But you can’t start with the big, scary stuff. Start with saying “no” to the small stuff. I started practicing my “no"s with people I loved and trusted. People I knew would still love and support me if I said “no”. For someone who really struggled with the word, this was big. Hearing myself say “no” to small things with people I loved was empowering and gave me the strength to start applying that to bigger things.
You can even ask a trusted loved one to ask you really small asks that you can practice saying no to, like “do you want a glass of water?” or “do you want to go for a walk?”. Even just hearing yourself say the word if it’s not something in your vocabulary can be powerful.
I often have participants in my workshops and courses practice asking each other small, and then ridiculous things. No matter what the ask, the other participants answer is “no”. Often many people find this exercise really helpful and illuminating.
If your automatic reaction is to say “yes” and then immediately regret it, try to take time before you answer. Pause. Or say “Can I get back to you on that?”. Giving ourselves some needed time can help curb that auto-yes response.
So, if you struggle with saying “no”, there’s a few, non-exhaustive, things you can start doing to make it part of your vocabulary.
If you’re looking to go deeper or learn more, I’m offering a FREE workshop Nov 24th, 2021 at 7pm EST where we will look closer at boundaries and what they are, your relationship with “no”, as well as more practical tools to help you be able to say “no” like a pro.