It’s a little word, but if you’re a chronic people pleaser it can be so tricky to say it. These tips and tricks will help
“I’m done being a people pleaser, if everyone’s OK with that.” Does this sound like your annual New Year’s resolution? Do you have difficulty turning down requests for your skills, time and attention? Have you lost touch with your own identity in your efforts to satiate your family, friends, boss or colleagues? If your tendency to say yes infringes on your well-being, read this sensible article by science journalist Shayla Love, who cites several psychology studies while explaining how to break the cycle and learn to say no.
- People pleasers lose their sense of identity when they become the person that others want them to be.
- The cure for “the disease to please” is to audit why and how often you say yes.
- Think before you respond, and start with baby steps.
- Change the language you use to refuse a request.
- People pleasing doesn’t always cast you in a favorable light.
People pleasers lose their sense of identity when they become the person that others want them to be.
People pleasers’ instincts generally spring from an authentically good place: They wish to maintain social harmony and satisfy others. Yet this personality quirk can be self-sabotaging: If your desire to please engulfs you entirely, you can become anxious and depressed. You lose sense of your individuality, resulting in a “vanishing self”; that is, you exist merely to satisfy others and fail to pursue your own wants and needs. If you frequently feel obligated to bend to others’ wills, rest assured: You can learn to become more assertive, push back and say no.
The cure for “the disease to please” is to audit why and how often you say yes.
For a week, track how many times you say yes, how saying yes makes you feel, and how inconvenient each request is. At the end of the week, review your notes. Bear in mind that people pleasers come in various shades, all with a desire for acceptance: Some are incapable of saying no, even when saying yes pushes them toward burnout. Others yearn to appear amiable or to avoid conflict: They say yes, opt not to speak their mind, apologize excessively or inconvenience themselves to their own detriment. In extreme cases, people pleasers participate in risky behavior to avoid disappointing others.
“People pleasers tend to feel safe only when they’re receiving approval from others. If that feeling underpins all of your yeses, you could be saying yes too often.”
Examine the reasons for your yeses. People pleasers long for “social currency” – approval, credit, appreciation, reputation or respect, for example. If acceptance, rather than a genuine desire to do the job asked of you, drives your yes, that is a valid reason to say no. Alas, many people pleasers fear saying no. If you’re afraid that others will dislike you if you refuse them, you are likely saying yes out of fear. If saying yes to others is causing you stress or anxiety, it’s time to rein in your tendency to please others.
Think before you respond, and start with baby steps.
One way to practice saying no is to pause, even for a fraction of a second, before responding. Pausing gives you time to reflect on the request. To buy yourself more time to think out a well-reasoned response, tell the other person that you need to check your schedule. Then consider whether you want to fulfill the request or if it would overstretch you. Assess your current commitments, your capacity to undertake additional obligations and the repercussions of not fulfilling the request.
“Avoid guilt as a sole motivator; don’t say yes only out of the fear of disappointing others. Recognize that it’s OK to prioritize yourself alongside others.”
Start small. Say no to signing a petition, for example. Small, low-stakes refusals will help you grow accustomed to the negative feelings associated with disappointing others. Small nos build up your assertiveness, eventually allowing you to refuse larger requests, such as a dinner with a friend.
Change the language you use to refuse a request.
People pleasers opt for vague language to avoid being rude or hurting others’ feelings. Instead, be precise. “I don’t” statements are more assertive than “I can’t” statements. For example, “I don’t do work tasks on the weekend” is firmer than “I can’t do that assignment this weekend.” Or try a “relational refusal”: Mention your existing commitments when you turn down a request. Explain how others are relying on you, and how your time is already stretched. Such responses “humanize” your refusals.
“Once you start paying attention, you’ll see people saying no to requests all the time – without the world crumbling around them, or everyone turning their backs on them.”
Notice other people’s abilities to turn down requests with little or no consequence. Then think about the times others refused your requests. Did you ultimately hate those people? Unlikely. According to author and podcaster Tim Ferriss, every successful person says no by default, because focusing on what you care about is impossible if you’re preoccupied with fulfilling other people’s needs.
People pleasing doesn’t always cast you in a favorable light.
People pleasers crave others’ acceptance. However, a 2021 study found that people-pleasing is often viewed as a character flaw. Many see people pleasers as disingenuous or conniving, assuming that they agree to do tasks they don’t want to do in order to grovel to higher-ups, manipulate others or benefit themselves. These may not be your motives, but be aware that people-pleasing doesn’t always have the intended effect.
As you begin saying no and asserting yourself more, some people who took your yes for granted will be taken aback, and you might experience an uncomfortable adjustment period. However, in the long run, saying no more frequently results in more sustainable relationships.
About the Author
Science journalist Shayla Love is a staff writer at Psyche. Her articles have appeared in Vice, The New York Times and Wired.