Most of us want to be liked by other people. It feels great to know that others think good of us. However, when we believe that being liked depends on how much stuff we do for other people and how helpful we are, that’s when the problems arise. People-pleasers know this issue too well – the inability to say no.
Helping others can be really fulfilling, but if you do it at the expense of yourself, out of fear or anxiety, it becomes an unhealthy pattern of behaviour that can suck all your energy and negatively impact your relationships. You spend so much time on what you think you need to do that there is almost zero time left for what you actually want to do. In the end, you feel exhausted, stressed, overwhelmed, and even resentful.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Learning how to say no and not feel awful after is absolutely possible. In fact, knowing how to set boundaries is one of the most important things in sustaining healthy relationships with others and yourself.
Why Saying NO Is So Difficult?
In general, as children, we learn that saying no is inappropriate and rude. If you said no to your parents’, cousins’, or teachers’ requests, you’ve probably been told off for it. Over time, you associated saying yes to requests with getting approval and saying no with criticism. On top of that, early relationships maybe additionally influenced your “people-pleasing” patterns of behaviour.
You may have been raised to be a sweetheart who always took care of other children, especially if you were the oldest child in the family. An influence like this can lead to the formation of beliefs such as: “I am only lovable if I’m accommodating and helpful”. Or maybe you come from a family where providing emotional support was conditional and inconsistent. Thus, in the attempt to secure love from important adults, it’s possible you developed the underlying belief: “If I don’t do everything to make others happy, they might leave or stop caring for me”. Inability to say no can also stem from early experiences with highly-critical parents who severely punished their children, even for small mistakes. Such experiences can lead to beliefs such as: “If I don’t do everything right, I will disappoint others or be punished”.
Whatever the case is, your self-worth may have come to depend on things you do for others. This is a tricky thing because it forms a vicious circle with no satisfying solution. On the one hand, being unable to say NO can make you stressed, exhausted, and resentful toward others. On the other hand, saying NO might be a threat for your self-image and result in you questioning your decision, feeling bad about yourself, or worrying others will get hurt, angry, or disappointed at you. Either way, with this kind of pattern, you can’t win.
But there is a way to actually win, and that is – change the pattern. Here are some steps you can take to help you say no effectively and create space for a more intentional yes.
Step 1: Get To Know Your Priorities
If you don’t know what you want, it’s a high chance you don’t know what you don’t want. Identify what is important to you, and acknowledge what is not. We all have limited energy and time; decide where you want to direct those, and where you definitely don’t. Before you say no, you have to be clear that you want to say no.
There are, of course, things that need to be done, even if we don’t like it, like finishing that important but boring report at work. But there are also things that you are not obliged to do, like spending another two hours at work helping your colleague finish their task while you really wanted to spend that time at the movies with your significant one.
You can’t be all things to all people. Choose what and who the priority is, and invest your limited time and energy there. The rest gets your resources only in case you really decide it’s worth it.
Step 2: Know What Saying NO Is And Is Not
- Saying NO means you’re rejecting a request, not the person. Make clear to yourself (and to the other person) that you’re not rejecting them as a whole person; you’re just turning down their invitation. People will usually understand that it is your right to say no, just as it is their right to ask for the favor, and that your no doesn’t mean “I don’t like you” but simply: “Sorry, my plate is full/my priorities are elsewhere”.
- Saying NO doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Just because you say no to sacrificing your time and comfort to accommodate others doesn’t mean you’re unlikable, rude, or selfish. It means you’re thinking long term and saying no is a preventative act against self-loathing and resentment in the future.
- Saying NO is not a missed opportunity but a trade-off. Some people hate to say no because they feel like they’re missing out the opportunity. However, saying yes to something unimportant often means saying no to something important. So, instead of looking at NO as a missed opportunity, you can see it as a trade-off. You’re choosing the opportunity to do something you value more than the request. It seems like a fair deal.
- Your NO might be much less threatening than it seems to you. Research from Columbia University found that, very often, people whom others see as appropriately assertive mistakenly thought others judged them as being over-assertive. This effect is called the line crossing illusion. So, if you feel you might be confrontational, there is a high chance the other party doesn’t see you that way.
- Saying NO is a form of self-care and self-respect. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first if you want to have the energy to help others.
Step 3: Learn To Tolerate The Reactions Of Others
The reality is, with some people, setting boundaries will unleash some unpleasant emotions and reactions. There is a possibility they get angry or disappointed, especially if they’re used to you being always available and accommodating. Some might even try to cross your boundaries and continue to push to change your NO into YES. However, when you know this, you can be prepared to work to firmly maintain the boundaries that you have set.
Remember that you’re an individual to yourself and that everyone is responsible for their own reactions. Sometimes, deep down, negative response and unpleasant emotions of others are simply not about you. But even if they are, don’t overgeneralize and jump to conclusions too fast. If someone is disappointed or angry, it doesn’t automatically mean they will ditch you out of their life or think you’re an awful person. It means they are disappointed or angry in that particular situation.
If someone keeps crossing your boundaries even when you communicate them clearly and gets upset because you’re not ready to sacrifice your happiness for their comfort, it may be a good idea to ask yourself is it the kind of relationship you want to nurture in the long run. In the end, you want to surround yourself with people who respect you for who you are, not only for what you do for them.
Step 4: Learn Some Practical Skills For Saying NO
Here are some tangible tips for practicing saying a polite but effective no.
✔️ Express your appreciation. More often than not, when people make a request, it’s because they trust your capabilities or they like your presence. Thus, even though you’ll refuse the invitation/request, thank them for approaching you.
✔️ Be kind but firm. Being polite doesn’t need to lead to a YES. Simply expressing your NO with a kind tone can help the other person (and you) feel better about the situation. However, some people don’t give up easily and will test your persistence. In this case, it’s important to know that nobody can “make” you change your answer with their repeated requests; the decision is completely yours. It’s your job to set boundaries. You can be as decisive as they are pushy. This is a good opportunity to practice your assertiveness.
✔️ Give some reason if you want but don’t over-apologize. Some people find it easier to say no if they give a reason for it, and that is okay. If you feel more comfortable saying: “I’m sorry, I have something else in my schedule already” instead of: “Sorry, I can’t”, that is completely fine. Just don’t lie about it and don’t make up excuses, because that will make you feel even guiltier and possibly complicate your life further. It’s important to know that you don’t need the good excuse to say no – having your priorities elsewhere is enough. Remember, you’re not asking for anyone’s permission to say no – you already have the right to it.
✔️ You can take time to think about it. Sometimes we just babble out YES and commit to something we don’t want to because we feel pressured to give the answer right away. It’s okay to take some time to think about it. That way, we give ourselves the opportunity to answer from the logical and realistic point of view instead out of anxiety and desire to please. If you’re really not sure about the request, tell the other person you’ll get back to them when you think about it. Just make sure you actually do it in a timely manner.
Saying no is a new thing for many of us, and therefore takes practice and courage. But with time, it becomes easier and brings amazing benefits. You are unique, important, and valuable even when you say no to being everything to everyone and take time for yourself. Don’t be afraid to practice it.
What are your experiences with saying no? Share it with us in the comments below! And also, share this post on social media; some people-pleasers you know might be thankful ?
Smith, M. J. (1975). When I say no, I feel guilty: how to cope–using the skills of systematic assertive therapy. Bantam.
Do you feel constantly under pressure? Are your work deadlines taking a toll on you? Do you find yourself being anxious and on edge in your relationship? Do you experience headaches often? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are undergoing stress.
Stress has taken over our lives. The alarming rates of competition, job insecurity, and conflicts at a personal level all give rise to stress. Stress is the reaction of our body and mind to the demands placed on us. To a certain extent, stress is normal and useful and helps us to react quickly or work hard to meet a deadline.
However, if the stress is prolonged or occurs often, it results in negative effects like upset stomach, back pain, headache, and disturbed sleep. It also has an adverse effect on our mood and may hamper our relationships and career. This is when we need to take certain steps in order to manage stress.
The first step – find what is causing your stress
The most important thing you should do when combating stress involves finding the source of stress in your life. This can be done by keeping a stress journal.
Keeping a stress journal entails recording information about the daily stressors you are experiencing in order to analyze and manage them. Here are a few things you would want to record:
- The stressful event you have experience
- Your feelings after the even
- How did you handle the event?
After you have recorded in your journal for a number of days, it’s time to analyze it. For the analysis, look at the different stressful events you have experienced. Highlight those that occur frequently as well as those which are the most unpleasant. Then, appraise how you have felt after these events as well as how you handled them. Your analysis will reveal several problems regarding your handling of these events that need to be fixed. It will be helpful to list these areas separately to work on them later.
Then shift your focus to the stressful events you experienced and list ways in which they can be changed or if your reaction to them can be changed. Finally, analyze the feelings these events arose in you and how did that affect your overall functioning.
Once you have fully identified the common sources of stress in your life and analyzed your pattern of handling them, you can discontinue managing your journal and move onto the next step.
The second step – avoid situations that cause stress
Avoiding all situations that are causing you stress might not be possible, but avoiding some will be. For example, avoid people who stress you out. Limit the time you spend with them. Of course, this can’t be done if it’s a spouse or a family member.
Having too many deadlines and taking on too many roles is a cause of stress. Learn to be assertive and say no. Know your limits and say ‘no’ to taking on more than you can handle.
Take control of your environment. Avoid the traffic-filled route or hire someone to clean the house for you if you find it stressful.
The third step – change the stressful situation
If there is no way to avoid a stressful situation, try to make changes and decrease the amount of stress that way. For example, play your favorite music while doing an unpleasant chore like cleaning to make it seem more pleasurable.
Manage your time better. Poor time management leads to a lot of stress. Planning ahead ensures you are on time on your deadlines and you lose a reason to be stressed.
Express your feelings. Talk it out instead of keeping it inside. If you want some me-time, tell your spouse you want to be by yourself for __ number of minutes and will get back right after that. If something is bothering you, be upfront about it without being rude and express how you feel about it. For example, if your spouse is not throwing out the garbage, a duty they initially assumed, calmly approach them and say ‘I feel stressed when the garbage is still there and I feel like I have one more task to attend to before sleeping.’
Balance it out. Asking someone to change their behavior also involves doing something for them in exchange. Or when you are taking on their duties, you might want to give them one of yours. For example, in the above situation, you can add, ‘When we divided the duties earlier, we had decided you will do it. Do you want to continue doing it or exchange it for another?’
The fourth step – change your reactions
You may not be able to control stressful situations and events, but you can control the way you are reacting to them. Try looking at stressful situations from a positive perspective. For example, if an added responsibility at work stresses you out, think of how it will add to your learning and you can add an extra set of skill experience to your resume.
Take out your binoculars. The situations cause us stress because we are looking at merely the present scenario. However, if we zoom out and see the whole picture, it might not seem as bad. Think of how much this event is important? Will it matter in a month or a year? Is it worth wasting your time over? For example, this might be applicable when a colleague has pointed out your mistake in a monthly review meeting. You feel bad about it and get stressed that it will affect your reputation at work. Thinking about how many people will remember it till the next meeting or how important that colleague’s view is for you should help reduce the stress.
Set lower expectations. When we expect a lot from both ourselves and others, we set ourselves up for failure. Stop demanding perfection. Set reasonable standards.
The fifth step – accept what cannot be changed
Some situations and people are beyond our control. Focusing on these uncontrollable events will only lead to more stress. You need to shift your focus to things you can control instead. For example, if a family member’s behavior often causes you to be angry and your umpteen efforts at changing him/her have proved futile, it would be best to change the way you react to him/her. Don’t give him/her the power to decide your emotions.
Look at difficult situations in a new light. View them as ways to grow and learn.
Humans are fallible and prone to mistakes. Forgive and let go of resentment.
The sixth step – find ways to de-stress
Find strategies that work for you when you are stressed. Some of these may be:
- Playing with a pet
- Writing about things that are bothering you
- Talking to a friend
- Indulging in a hobby
- Going for a walk
- Taking a long, leisurely bath
- Watching a comic video
- Practicing relaxation techniques or yoga
Set aside time for yourself during the day. Indulge in things you enjoy doing.
The seventh step – practice healthy lifestyle choices
Eat a nutritious, balanced diet. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Reduce caffeine, oil, and sugar from your diet. Get enough restful sleep. Drink sufficient water daily to keep yourself hydrated.
This will help you feel better physically and emotionally. Take care of yourself; it’s the number one thing stress hates.
Elkin, A. (2013). Stress management for dummies. John Wiley & Sons.
Romas, J. A., & Sharma, M. (2013). Practical Stress Management: A Comprehensive Workbook. Pearson Higher Ed.
Tol, W. A., Barbui, C., & van Ommeren, M. (2013). Management of acute stress, PTSD, and bereavement: WHO recommendations. JAMA, 310(5), 477-478.