We all know saying yes to too often is a surefire recipe for burnout, so why do so many of us struggle to say no when we need to? Grace Anderson explains why we need to stop people pleasing and put ourselves at the top of our to-do lists…

‘Sorry to ask, but would you mind…’ My heart sinks, knowing my carefully planned day off is about to be taken over by someone else’s needs. If the words ‘Could you just…’ or ‘Actually, would you be able to…’ strike fear into your soul then you’re not alone. People pleasing is a serious problem for a lot of women and like many issues in life, it can only be solved once we face it head on.

You know the phrase ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person’ (thank you Lucille Ball – perhaps the non-busy could answer the call this time?!) – well that’s me, capable, efficient, utterly exhausted.

Who doesn’t want to be a yes person? In the world of social media, always-on technology and endless opportunity surely, it’s better to say yes than no? ‘No problem!’ ‘Sure thing!’ ‘You got it!’ – I have thousands of ways to answer in the affirmative. But if we think of time and energy as finite resources (because they are) – saying yes to one thing obviously means you have less time for another. ‘Yes, I’ll go to my co-worker’s art show’ means ‘No, I won’t spend some quality time with my family this evening’. Of course, it’s human nature to want to please, especially for women, however, saying yes to too many things is a quick way to resentment, overwhelm and stress.

‘Generally speaking women are the nurturers. As nurturers, we value relationships more than men, and as a result, what people think of us and how good we are at our “nuturer” role matters to us,’ says Dubai-based Career Coach and NLP Life Coach Zeta Yarwood. ‘For many women their self-worth is tied to their role as a good, helpful, kind, considerate and cooperative person – both at work and home – which leads to excessive people-pleasing.’

The problem is we’re good at it. We can manage – just – to squeeze in a few extra jobs here and there, to send an email to the gas company while at the dry cleaners, to pick up some dinner on the way home, to pop over and check on our friends’ pets before racing back to work to help someone finish a presentation. But make no mistake, it’s taking a serious toll.

Why it matters

So, what’s the big deal if we prefer to say yes than no? Well firstly if everyone else gets a yes, your needs automatically go to the back of the line which is toxic to your self-esteem. What are you telling yourself if the needs of others are always more important?

‘People pleasing can lead to all sorts of issues,’ agrees Yarwood. ‘It can lead to exhaustion as people-pleasers tend to put self-care at the bottom of their list of priorities. It can lead to stress as their time is spent pleasing others instead of focusing on their own tasks. Often creating unnecessary pressure to complete whatever is on their to-do list and overwhelm when none of it gets done. Long-term stress and exhaustion have been linked to some major health issues including obesity, heart disease and depression.’

‘As much as I love helping people I’ve know when I’ve reached my limit,’ says recruitment consultant Dayna Hewitt. ‘For my own sanity I’ve had to learn to give a hard no over an easy yes or I burn out.’

It’s also hard not to foster some resentment at staying late helping a co-worker catch up on a project or sitting in traffic on route to feeding your friend’s cat. This resentment can then fester, sour our relationships and even make us ill.

‘Saying yes all the time obliterates all boundaries – you’re not protecting yourself,’ says psychologist Dr Susan Newman, author of /The Book of No/. ‘Essentially you can make yourself sick from doing too much.’ Being overcommitted equals less sleep, less downtime and depleted resources. ‘In the worst-case scenario, you’ll wake up and find yourself depressed, because you’re on such overload because you possibly can’t do it all.”

‘People pleasing can also play havoc with our sense of self-worth and self-esteem,’ says Yarwood. ‘Our self-worth goes up and down based on how people receive or react to our acts of kindness. When we please people we feel great. When we don’t, we feel terrible. Instead of our self-worth coming from the inside and being constant because we have full control over it, it’s directed by who we’re surrounding ourselves with on the outside. Leaving it outside of our control.’

So why are so many of us reluctant to say no?

Well for a start, most of us never learned in the first place, women are praised for being ‘good’ and helpful from an early age – offering up our time and energy for others is something society encourages and rewards in girls.

‘Women have been raised to be care givers and nurturers, which is why the problem is more prevalent for us than men,’ says Dr Newman. ‘We want to please because we think it will make us better people. For some women this becomes a habit, or even an addiction.’

Secondly, it can be as simple as we don’t know how. When someone is in front of us and desperate to hear the word yes, we simply don’t know how to disappoint them – we don’t have the language. But the word ‘no’ can be such a powerful one when you learn how to use it properly, it says to others (and more importantly, to yourself) that your time is valuable, that you matter and you are going to prioritise your own needs.

‘It’s really about trying to identify the need we think people-pleasing will meet,’ says Yarwood. ‘Are we known as the “helpful” one? The “reliable” one? And if we stop playing that role, who would we be then? Only when we start to believe that we are worthy of love regardless of what roles we play can we address the problem of people pleasing.’

How to start

The first step is to realise you have a choice, we often feel like we have to say yes to someone who asks us for help, but you can always say no. Work out your priorities –family, work, friends, fitness, downtime… what do you value, and what is saying yes to something outside of these things taking you away from? It’s much easier to say no when you are comfortable and solid about your own needs.

Next, practice makes perfect – if you’re used to saying yes more often than not then you will need to reprogram your automatic response and choose a few moments of awkwardness (to start with) over an evening of resentment.

Start small and build up the muscle slowly – say no to person who asks you to hang on the line for a survey, to the person at the post office who asks to cut in front, to the plus-one invitation to your friend’s work event. If a flat-out ‘No, sorry’ sounds too blunt for you, try one of the alternatives listed below, remember no one is suggesting you become a completely different person, just that you start to put up a few boundaries to stop everyone helping themselves to your time.

‘It took me almost burning out to realise that I could even say no,’ says television producer Paris Cox. ‘After years of always being available at work and for friends whenever they wanted me, I found myself feeling permanently drained and exhausted. Yoga classes were cancelled for late nights in the office, friends who ‘needed a catch up’ on weeknights meant I was falling into bed two hours later than I wanted, and an empty space in my diary felt unreasonably selfish. Luckily, I started seeing a therapist who encouraged me to make time for myself – without apologising for it. I started booking expensive gym classes after work to force me to leave on time (and refused to cancel them), I only allowed myself to make plans on a couple of nights a week and made a point of telling people at the start that I had to leave by 9.30 (without giving a long-winded explanation why). It took almost reaching breaking point to finally give myself permission to stop trying so hard to please everyone.’

Once you’ve rehearsed how to say no – and survive – write down anything that’s causing resentment in your life, is there someone who is pushing your boundaries? It might be your boss asking you to work late most nights, a friend popping round unannounced to discuss her endless problems, your sister asking you to babysit constantly. Then work out your wording – the main thing is to be both clear and firm. The more you waffle, explain and talk around your reasoning, the more you leave room for the other person to push back, or worse to genuinely not understand what the problem is. A clear: ‘Would you mind giving me a call before you come over next time,’ or ‘Sorry no, I can’t stay late tonight,’ is plenty. When you’re clear and firm, people don’t push back, when you’re unsure there’s room for confusion or discussion.

When someone asks you to do something, instead of reaching for an automatic ‘Sure’ or ‘No problem’, take a pause and ask yourself if you have the time and if will feel annoyed with yourself if you say yes. If you don’t know, say ‘Can I come back to you’ and give yourself time to work it through.

Beware of saying yes to something because it’s far enough away in the future not to worry about. ‘I always ask myself: ‘How would I feel if this invitation was for tomorrow’ says web developer Abigail Volkes. ‘If any part of me thinks ‘Ugh no’ then I say I can’t.’ Or as American entrepreneur Derek Sivers puts it, ‘If it’s not a Hell Yes it’s a No’.

If you’re really struggling then a coach or therapist can help. ‘Building self-worth starts with recognising the internal dialogue we have,’ says Yarwood. ‘Identifying what thoughts we have that make us feel worthy and thoughts which don’t, and changing the internal narrative to one that is kind, loving, supportive and encouraging.’

Remember it’s OK to say no
‘The reason setting boundaries makes people uncomfortable is because they think it’s a form of confrontation’ says Michelle Chalfont on her podcast The Adult Chair. ‘It’s not, you’re just pointing out what you will and won’t put up with. If you work out what you want to say and you’re clear it doesn’t have to be confrontational – finish with a ‘thanks so much’ and move on once you’ve made your point.’  

One of the biggest ways we get into trouble here is by trying to invent an elaborate reason for why we can’t do something when actually, we don’t owe anyone an explanation. Obviously ‘Sorry it’s not really my scene’ is not going to get you out of your brother’s wedding invitation, but it’s a perfectly acceptable answer to ‘Would you like to come watch a three-hour art-house film about Sweden’. Similarly, if you’re already busy on five nights this week, you don’t have to feel bad about saying ‘Actually, I really need a night off – how about next week?’.

‘The best thing is I’ve stopped thinking that everyone can’t possibly live without me doing everything for them,’ says Cox, ‘I’ve stopped relying on other people’s gratitude as a way to feel good about myself. And now when I say Yes – I really mean it.’

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