How To Stop Being A People Pleaser And Learn To Say No

Yes, it's possible to un-learn your people-pleasing tendencies. Here's how.
How to break the habit of automatically saying yes to every invite and request you receive.
mikroman6 via Getty Images
How to break the habit of automatically saying yes to every invite and request you receive.

When that freeloading friend shoots you a last-minute text asking if you can pick them up at the airport, you drop what you’re doing and hop in the car. When your brother-in-law asks you to help him move, you do it, even though your back has been killing you lately. When your roommate invites you to happy hour, you immediately reply “I’ll be there!” — even when you’d much rather stay home and catch up on TV.

If these scenarios sound familiar, then you’re probably a people pleaser.

People pleasers crave approval and validation, so they’ll go to great lengths to keep others happy — even at the expense of their own wellbeing.

People-pleasing tendencies often emerge in our childhood years. Psychologist Scott Rower said this type of behaviour is also common among people who grew up in dysfunctional environments where trauma or abuse may have occurred.

“Most of us are doing this unconsciously — ‘It’s just who I am’ — without awareness that this was an adaptive strategy for navigating the world back then, but has outgrown its use,” Rower told HuffPost. “Pleasing others and being seen as good provides the security, pleasure and status that we all seek to let us know we are safe, good and worthy.”

Saying no, on the other hand, feels risky, because it could lead to someone being upset with us. To a people pleaser, another person’s disappointment or disapproval is more than just a mildly uncomfortable feeling.

“It’s perceived as a threat that must be quickly neutralised at all costs,” said Aziz Gazipura, a confidence coach and author of “Not Nice: Stop People Pleasing, Staying Silent, & Feeling Guilty.” “The best way to avoid all that is to simply say yes instead of no. Of course, this works to avoid upset in the short term, but produced negative consequence in the long term.”

Indeed, perpetually saying yes when you mean no can take its toll over time, leaving you overwhelmed, overworked, anxious and resentful.

“We only have so much emotional and physical energy,” said social psychologist Susan Newman, author of “The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say it and Mean it ― and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.” “Agreeing to too many obligations puts you at risk for the stress and anxiety that comes from completing all you’ve committed to. Overcommitment can exhibit itself in your being short-tempered with someone who doesn’t deserve it, for instance.”

“In extreme people-pleasing cases, too many yeses may lead to depression or manifest itself by affecting your physical health in different and sometimes surprising ways that seem unrelated and unexplained — headaches, hair loss or sleeplessness,” Newman added.

So, how can you let go of your people-pleasing ways? Below, experts offer some practical advice that will help you learn to give a healthy “no.”

Before you say yes to something, think about why you’re agreeing to it.

Consider the motive behind each yes. Ask yourself if it’s coming from a genuine place — is this something you actually want (and have the bandwidth) to do — or is there some other reason you’re agreeing to do it?

“Are you doing this because it’s too scary not to?” Rower asked. “Are you wanting to say yes because ultimately it will lead to [this person] doing something for you without you having to ask for it?”

Learning to be more self-aware is the first step to changing your behaviour.

Give yourself permission to say no.

Often, the biggest obstacle to saying no isn’t the boss, friend or relative who’s making the request, Gazipura said — it’s the false narrative in your head that equates saying no with being uncaring, mean or selfish.

“They think it’s hurting others,” he said. “In truth, saying no to what you don’t want is healthy, adaptive and one of your human rights.”

“Pleasing others and being seen as good provides the security, pleasure and status that we all seek to let us know we are safe, good and worthy.”

- Scott Rower, psychologist

To get more comfortable, Gazipura suggests repeating a phrase like, “I am allowed to say no when I want to.”

Then practice saying no to small things.

Gazipura compared the act of saying no to strengthening a physical muscle. The more you do it, the stronger you’ll become and the easier it will get. But you’re not going to lift 50-pound dumbbells your first time at the gym — you start with 10-pound weights and work your way up over time.

“Start by looking for two opportunities this week to say no to small things in your life,” Gazipura said. You can practice when a retail worker asks if you want to open up a store credit card or when the server tries to push an expensive bottle of wine on you.

“Just like hitting the gym, the first few weeks might be hard and you may feel resistance to doing it,” Gazipura said. “But once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll discover the horrible reactions to fear rarely happen, and you’ve just accessed a new level of freedom.”

Set boundaries around what you’re willing to do and for whom.

Think about which people in your life — be it a certain friend, relative or colleague — who tend to ask the most of you without offering much in return.

“Think about your priorities and decide who might be taking advantage of your willingness and good nature and to whom you truly want to be available,” Newman said.

Once you’ve determined which relationships are worthy of your time and energy, set some limits around what you’re willing — and not willing — to do.

“Knowing this makes it easier to refuse a request and establishes much-needed control over your own life,” Newman said.

You don’t have to give an answer right away.

You’re probably in the habit of giving a quick yes, no matter the request, and without giving it a whole lot of thought. Instead, take a beat and then reply by saying something like, “I have to check my schedule” or “Let me get back to you on that.”

“Think about your priorities and decide who might be taking advantage of your willingness and good nature and to whom you truly want to be available.”

- Susan Newman, social psychologist and author of “The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say It And Mean It"

It’s also well within your right to ask for more details (“How long do you expect this task will take?”; “How many other volunteers will be helping out on Saturday?”) before you agree.

And know that you can always negotiate the terms of your yes — it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

“Simplify a request and if comfortable, assume a smaller role,” Newman said.

Resist the urge to explain too much.

People pleasers often fall into the trap of thinking they need to provide a detailed explanation of why they can’t (or don’t want to) do something, but that’s simply not the case. Keep your response firm and brief.

Gazipura offered examples: If friends invite you to dinner, you can say something along the lines of, “Thanks for the invitation to join you guys for dinner, but I won’t be able to make it. Have fun.”

If someone asks you on a second date and you’re not interested, you can say, “I enjoyed meeting you the other night. However, I don’t think we should continue seeing each other. I wish you all the best!”

Realise that saying no rarely ruffles as many feathers as you think it will.

People pleasers worry that if they tell someone no, there’s going to be a huge amount of pushback from the person extending the invite or making the request. In reality, that’s often not the case, Newman said.

“The key to stopping people-pleasing is understanding that when you say no, people are not thinking about you as much as you worry” they are.

We’ve all been there: Somehow, you’ve found yourself in a conversation with a person you have nothing in common with, someone who intimidates you or someone who won’t stop complaining. These kinds of interactions can be uncomfortable, to say the least. Our HuffPost series How to Talk to Just About Anyone will help you navigate these conversations and others. Go here for all the latest.