Saying “no” to a request isn’t always easy. If it was, so many people wouldn’t have a problem saying it. Those with this particular difficulty are often called “pleasers”. If you’re a pleaser, you probably already know it. You want to help others and don’t want to let anyone down. Saying “no” for a pleaser is frequently associated with a feeling of guilt.
Being a “pleaser” myself, I know what I’m talking about. Breaking this pattern has been a challenge for me. As a nice girl, I learned to always say “yes”, pleasing others above my own needs. At the time, I believed that everyone else’s needs were more important than my own.
I clearly remember a situation when I was working for an events company. I was pregnant at the time, and I didn’t say “no” to extra tasks. The reason I did this was that I was afraid to be fired after coming back from maternity leave. So I didn’t listen to what I needed, which meant I stretched myself too far. As a result, I was ordered two months of bed rest to prevent the baby from coming too early. Which he did anyway.
You can’t please everyone all the time
To say “no”, requires you to be brave and set your boundaries. It could be about saying no to an extra task to complete or an unreasonable request. Or you’ve simply got too much to do to take anything else on. Saying “no” is OK. You’ve probably already heard that you can’t please everyone all the time.
Of course, there are times when saying “yes” can’t be helped, or is the only right thing to do. But doing so consistently and not thinking about your own needs causes stress. Both mentally and physically. It can cause you to feel angry, frustrated and misunderstood. You can also get physical symptoms like back- or stomachache and headaches. And you find yourself stuck in a people-pleasing rut.
Being a pleaser can hold you back in your career
Saying “yes” to others’ needs and requests have most likely also helped you in your career. You’ve developed admirable soft skills. They have helped you become accepted and liked by everyone. You’re approachable, a good listener, and seen as trustworthy and accountable. As a pleaser, you have a high level of emotional intelligence. You are an analytical and critical thinker. All very useful skills for your career.
So you might think that saying “no” to people will make them dislike you and harm your career. But the opposite is true. By starting to say “no” you will gain respect from others. You will find new opportunities and find your focus. You will gain energy, have a sense of fulfilment and learn to manage your time better.
Just like perfectionism can hold you back in your life and career, so can be too much of a pleaser.
What stops you from saying “no”?
The first thing to do to break this pleaser-trap is to find out why you’re having a difficult time saying “no”. There are three steps you can take to get more clarity.
Let’s get into more detail.
Step 1: Get to know yourself better!
To start saying “no” you need to know your boundaries. And you can only define them by knowing yourself. Your boundaries are linked to your personality, your values and your needs.
So ask yourself:
- What and who do you care about?
- What is important to you?
- What do you need?
Setting boundaries for the values and people that you care about the most, is the most difficult step. This is where you often end up crossing your limits.
For example, if it’s essential to you to be helpful in your workplace, you might take it too far and be unable to delegate.
Or if family is important to you, it will be easy for you to forget about your own needs to always be there for your family.
So, get to know yourself and find your boundaries!
Step 2: Learn to notice when your boundaries are crossed
Do you recognise when someone is crossing your boundaries? Can you tell me at what moment it happens? Or why do you let people cross your boundaries?
When you have defined your boundaries, start noticing when someone crosses your limits.
- Are my boundaries defined enough?
- Why am I consistently letting people cross my boundaries?
There are many answers to these questions.
Maybe you like the feeling you get when you’re helpful to someone.
Maybe you don’t want to feel guilty when you say “no” and it’s easier to say “yes”.
Maybe you’re afraid of letting people down and of the consequences of saying “no”.
Maybe you’re avoiding conflicts.
Maybe you have a fear of missing out.
Whatever your reasons, recognise the moment you let others cross your boundaries. Tune into your body, and check-in how you feel when it happens. What emotional or physical clues does your body give you?
Examples you can look for are shortness of breath, tension in your back or neck or stomach ache. Or do you feel frustrated, angry or defensive? Find your own signal to look out for!
Step 3: Learn to protect your boundaries
You’ve established what your boundaries are, and you know when and why you let people cross them. And now you have a choice.
You can intentionally choose to let people cross your limits. Or you can protect them and safeguard your mental and physical health.
When you set boundaries and start saying “no”, you communicate how you want people to interact with you. But it’s up to you to communicate what your limits are. A boundary that is not communicated is non-existent.
The most difficult thing about this third step is staying consistent. It’s tiring to say “no”, particularly at the beginning when you’re not used to it. Not being consistent also makes it difficult for those around you. They get mixed signals from you and won’t know how to treat you.
But there is a lot to gain by being consistent and saying “no”. By clearly communicating your boundaries, you will start finding bigger and better opportunities.