As a recovering people-pleaser, I have a hard time saying no—to my mom, to my friends, to the waiter if they get my order wrong. Natalie Lue, the author of The Joy of Saying No, can relate. Growing up, he felt intense pressure to be good and do what was expected of him. Although his parents separated when he was young, Lue spent the rest of his childhood feeling guilty about splitting his time between households.
“I got a clear message when I was young that you have to act a certain way to be accepted,” Lue recalled. “There are all these messages—at home and at school—that if you’re not happy, then you have problems. It’s your job to make others happy. It’s your job to fulfill other people’s dreams. It’s your job to overperform and give 100%.”
Therefore, a pleasant person was born.
“But there’s a part of me that over-gives to friendships, family, at work…I’m exhausted because I over-deliver, over-achieve and always dependable,” he said. “And when my health was struggling because I had an immune system disease called sarcoidosis, I continued to overdeliver at work to compensate for doing something as terrible as being in poor health.”
By definition, people pleasers put the needs of others before their own. While helping others is great mental health benefitsdoing it to your own detriment can bring negative consequences, such as stress and depressionas well as anger.
“People-pleasing is the answer to anxiety,” Lue said. “Whether we know it in the moment, or afterwards, what we’re saying is ‘I’m worried about something. I’m worried that I won’t be liked. I’m worried that I’m going to be rejected. Or I’m worried that I won’t get my want.’ People-pleasing is a manifestation of anxiety, and I also try to manage my anxiety, which only creates more problems for me.
Once we know what pleases people and how it manifests in our lives, then we can make the necessary changes. Below, Lue outlines some that will help you get started:
Lue recommends spending a week getting to know people who are pleasing inside by paying attention to who and what you say yes to and what you say no to or maybe to.
“The average people-pleaser is high on yes,” he said. “There are one or two there, but they are under nos. Look where you spend your yes.”
Before committing to another activity or request, Lue advises taking a pause and checking in with yourself (and your body’s stress signals) before responding.
“A lot of people don’t bother to check in about their feelings and figure out if they want or need to say yes,” she said. “Who causes you anxiety when you see their name in your inbox or on your phone? That tension inside you—where you’re afraid to open your phone because you’re expecting them to ask you something—a sign that you are a people pleaser.”
Lue also encourages people to pay attention to their feelings, whether it’s anger, guilt, overwhelm, helplessness.
“These are what I call people-pleasing feelings,” he said. “This is your body letting you know that you may have done something good, but for the wrong reasons. Your feelings are letting you know that you have no integrity in anything you agree to.”
First your no
“This time of year there’s a lot of ‘new year, new you’ going on,'” Lue said. “But you don’t need a new one, you need a new no. The reason you are in this place is because you spend too much on your yeses. You are in overdraft with your yeses. “
The first step in recovering from people pleasing is thinking about when and where you can say no – whether that starts with the barista at the coffee shop getting your order wrong or jumping all in and pushing the demands of work.
“When you say no authentically, you also say yes authentically,” Lue said. “You do things that are truly in the integrity of who you are, your values and how you want to feel instead of doing them out of obligation or for a hidden agenda.”
Embrace the joy of saying (and hearing) no
While many people-pleasers have a fear of conflict, Lue says that “‘no’ doesn’t hurt feelings, the dynamic.”
“When you say no to someone and they have an issue with that, that tells you something about the dynamic between you and the person—not about the validity of your no,” he says. “It also tells you that based on their reaction, you need to implement something boundaries. This is someone who can’t hear ‘no’ from you often enough.
But if we are afraid that we might hurt the feelings of others by saying no, it may also mean that we believe that it is not good for people to shun us. So it is important that we not only accept our own no, but we respect hearing no from others as well.
“If you don’t really say yes, you’ll say it with anger, fear, and avoidance and that will lead to more problems than if you just said no in the first place,” said Lue. “If we really accept this and know that pleasing people is a lie, we can have more intimacy and honesty in our relationships.”
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