Relational Wealth

The Art of Saying “No”: How to Stop Being a People Pleaser

By harishsystango
October 21, 2020
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No – such a simple two-letter word and yet it is so hard to say it. In fact, “No” is one of the 10 most common words uttered by babies, while “Yes” is not even in the top 20. However, as many of us turn into adults we developed a certain kind of inability to say no. 

As Paulo Coelho ( Brazilian lyricists and novelist) said:

“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself.” 

Time is the most precious and finite resource we have. Neither it can be regenerated nor retrieved or reversed. Like water pouring down the sink as we brush our teeth, we have the power to utilize the time wisely. But, many of us find it hard to use our time sensibly. And, most often the reason is saying “yes” to the things which are meant for a “no”. 

But, have you ever thought why do we struggle to say a “no”? How to say no to someone and why is it important to learn how to say “no” politely? You must have, but finding the answer to these questions is not a piece of cake and that’s why we’re here.

In this article, we will unleash the art of saying “no” and will also guide through some of the effective ways to stop being a people pleaser.


Let’s dive in:

Why do we find it so hard to say “No”?

According to the research conducted by Columbia psychologists Vanessa Lake and Francis Flynn, “Many of us frequently say “yes” to invitations, favours, and requests in order to avoid the difficulty and discomfort of saying “no”. We, as humans crave for attention, recognition and intimacy. For our emotional and physical stimuli, we want to be nice to people and want people to like us. “No” is counterintuitive to this notion and thus when we say “no” to our friend for a movie or to our boss for extra tasks, we fear the repercussions.

The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is another reason why we find it difficult to say “no”. The human instinct to be part of the community is incredibly strong. As mentioned by Professor Steve Peters in his book The Chimp Paradox, “The need to belong to a group is so powerful that we often compromise our lives and lifestyle to remain a part of the group”.

We feel this inner dilemma of how to say “no” to someone because we want to be kind and nice to others. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “nice” as pleasing and agreeable and “kind” as polite, considerate and caring. This means we can just be kind towards others and stop being so nice in some cases. The problem is, often people believe that being nice is a sign of a good person. However, this is not true. If you are simply stressing and overburdening yourself to be nice to others, then you are not a good person. Instead, carefully evaluating the opportunities and agreeing to things that align with your value, makes you a good person. And, thus for being a good person, you should also know the art of saying “no”.

We all can reconfigure our mind to say “no”

Yes, we can reprogramme our mind to say “no”. Thinking how? Eric Berne’s Transactional Theory will help you find out. According to Eric Berne, the Canadian-born psychiatrist, human behaviour has a set of three ego states as explained below:

  • Parent Ego State: This includes behaviours, thoughts and feelings that are heredity to parents.
  • Adult Ego State: behaviours, thoughts and feelings that we inculcate from our surroundings and situations that we face.
  • Child Ego State: behaviours, thoughts and feelings that we carry from childhood.

As per the Transactional Theory, the nature of social interaction is the sum of three states in the entire personality of a person. Berne explains why many people struggle to stay“no”, don’t know how to say “no” politely and at the same time also states that despite our past influences and external conditions, we can still make tough decisions for ourselves. For those who have been people-pleasers all their life and don’t know the art of saying “no” can redesign the way they behave by adopting healthy habits.

The different ego states of an individual make it difficult for him/her to say “no”. The battle between these pre-evolutionary ego states and your happiness is arduous. However, as soon as you recognize what changes saying “no” can bring to your life, it becomes easy for you to win the battle of your own happiness.

How to Say “No” Effectively – A Scientific Guide

William Ury, in his book The Power of Positive No, suggests that there is often internal conflict between sticking to our own sense of power and simultaneous desire to foster a relationship that makes it difficult to say a “no”. According to Ury, we often do the following three things in response to a request:

  1. Accommodate: This means we say yes when we actually wanted to say no. This brings us a false sense of peace which is replaced with resentment and apprehension later on.
  2. Attack: We aggressively say “no” to the ones whom we love or we take for granted.
  3. Avoid: We neither say yes nor no and simply leave the request unresolved.

Not being able to say a clear “no” is one of the biggest downfalls that successful entrepreneurs claim as their own key mistakes. Here is research that reveals how to say “no” politely.

According to the study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, 120 students were split into two groups. One of the groups was asked to say “I can’t” and the other “I don’t”. For example, students from the first group when asked whether they would like to go for a movie, they would say “I can’t go for a movie” while the student from the second group would reply “I don’t go for a movie” to the same question.

After repeating the phrases, students answered a set of questions which were not related to the study. And, once they finished answering the questions, they were offered a complimentary treat. The students were made to choose between a chocolate bar or granola health bar. Here is what happened: 

The students who told themselves “I can’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bar 61% of the time. Meanwhile, the students who told themselves “I don’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bars only 36% of the time. This simple change in terminology significantly improved the odds that each person would make a more healthy food choice.

The researchers wanted to find out how the right words make it easier to say a no. They did further research using the words “can’t” and “don’t” to find out how these words affect our willingness when faced with repeated temptations and distractions. They designed a new study, in which they divided 30 working women in a group of three. Each group consisted of 10 women, who were asked to sign up for a health and wellness seminar. They were given health goals to follow for the next 10 days.

Group 1 was indicated to just say “no” anytime they feel to skip the goals. Group 2 was told to implement a can’t strategy when they feel to slip off their goals and Group 3 was told to use “I don’t” anytime they feel to skip the goals. For example, Group 2 would say “I can’t miss my workout” while Group 3 would say “I don’t miss my workout”.

Here are the observations after 10 days:

  • Group 1 had 3 out of 10 who continued their workout for 10 days
  • Group 2 had only one member out of 10 who continued the workout for 10 days
  • Group 3 was the best performing group with 8 members who continued the workout for 10 days.

Saying “no” to the people is crucial at certain times as this will not let people take your advantage and approach you for the things to which you are more inclined to say “yes”. 

Furthermore, it is also sometimes required to say “no” to your inner self as well to overcome temptation and distractions. 

There are situations every day when you have to say “no” to something or the other. For example, the waiter who offers a dessert menu, your colleague asking you to help with his tasks when you are already overburdened with yours, your lazy self telling you to skip a workout.

Your response to these little choices appears to be insignificant, which is why you don’t make a big deal while telling yourself and others you “can’t” do something. However, if you’re polite with others and empowering yourself with the art of saying “no”, then you can lead a more productive and healthy life, without spoiling your relationship. 

Different ways of how to say “no” to someone:

Saying “No” to an Invitation/Offer:

  • It sounds lovely, but currently, I’m into something else.
  • Sounds great, but I can’t
  • Regrettably, I’m not able to.
  • Thanks for thinking of me, but I can’t.
  • I’m thankful you considered me, but unfortunately, I’ll have to pass this time.

Saying “No” when you don’t have the time:

  • I’m not able to make it this week/month/year.
  • I’m really maxed out.
  • I’m not taking on anything else right now.
  • I’m booked into something else.
  • It’s not feasible for me to take this on.

How to say “No” for any random reasons:

  • I wish I were able to.
  • I have something else. Sorry.
  • Maybe another time.
  • Apologies, but I can’t make it
  • Unfortunately, it’s not a good time.

Many of us find it hard to strike the right balance between being nice and putting ourselves as a priority. While it might not appear as a big issue, being a people pleaser can harm your interpersonal relationships.

Who is a People Pleaser?

A people pleaser is someone who always tries to make others happy. People pleaser’s go out of their way to please someone even if they have to spend valuable time and resources. The main reasons why people pleasers often act like this is the lack of self-esteem and insecurities.

People pleasers are often of the belief that saying yes to every favour people want from them, will make them feel accepted and liked. Some people pleasers suffer from maltreatment and over time they develop a belief that they can get better treatment with pleasing people who mistreated them. 

Do you have people pleaser’s personality, here is a quiz to find out- Take the Quiz.

If you feel like you have been going out of your way to please people, start taking charge of your activities.

5 ways to stop being a people pleaser according to Experts

  1. Become Self-Aware:

No amount of self-improvement can make up for any lack of acceptance. – Robert Holden

We can only bring changes to our life when we look at ourselves with respect and when we start accepting ourselves as we are. Becoming self-aware means becoming aware of the thoughts and feelings, learning from them instead of unconsciously reacting to them.

Check your thoughts, and your actions as this will help you understand the flaws in your personality. Respect those flaws and try to bring good changes in yourself. When you will start encountering your personal truths, you will gain better control of your impulse to please.

  • Practice Safe and Small “No”:

Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying “yes” too quickly and not saying “no” soon enough- Josh Billings

When it comes to changing your habit of pleasing-people, you have to learn the art of saying a “no”. Start practising “no” over small things and as we mentioned above, make use of the right words to be polite. For example, instead of saying, “I can’t go for a long drive” say “I don’t like going for a long drive” and instead of saying “I can’t help you with the assignments” say “I don’t have the bandwidth today to help you with the assignment”.

That said, it is also essential to excuses or avoids lies. When you’re saying “no”, speak with authority. Saying “no” with conviction will help you develop a habit of saying “yes” with conviction.

  • Accept that Uncomfortable feeling:

“Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so you can say ‘yes’ to the best.” — John C. Maxwell

Stop being a people pleaser can be a bit painful initially. Sometimes, you will have feelings of shame, fear, guilt, and sadness when you say “no” to a request. However, these feelings will be for a short duration and in the later stage, you will feel that you made the right decision. 

Many times, we keep ourselves worried about the thoughts about how others would feel after our negative response. We think that our friends or colleagues might get angry or feel disappointed. However, it is important to remind yourself here that you’re not being selfish thinking about yourself. Sometimes, you should choose your happiness and peace of mind over others.

  • Know your Goals:

“The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.”- Bill Copeland

It is much easier to say “no” to others’ requests and your inner distractions when you have goals to attain. It is always a good idea to keep evaluating your goals and set some short-term goals along with the long-term goals. 

Here are some of the goals that you should set for yourself:

  • Where do you want to see yourself in the next 5 years?
  • Which book do you want to read next?
  • Which skills do feel like acquiring to get better opportunities?
  • Which exercise routine should you follow?
  • Unleash your Internal Validation:

Seeking external validation brings disappointment. Validate yourself from within to find true happiness. – Amy Leigh Mercree

Most people pleasers are the ones who are desperate for validation and appreciation. In a study conducted by the Aarhus University in Denmark and  University College London, researchers gathered 28 volunteers to determine how someone can be identified as a validation seeker. Their aim was to understand the effect of external validation at the neural level.

They asked these 28 volunteers to list 20 songs they liked and then rate those songs from 1 to 10. They introduced 2 music experts who expressed their opinions about the songs. They scanned the brains of the participants and found out that greater validation the participants received, the more activity the brains showed. 

This means that confidence of most of the people is dependent on feedback from others. The best way to fight people-pleasing is to unleash your internal validation. Do activities that you enjoy, hang around with people who boost your self-esteem, enjoy your happiness and don’t put it in others’ hands.

Signing Off

Of course, developing a habit of saying “no” and learning to stop-pleasing people is not a thing that you will learn in one day. It is a challenging and time-taking process. Be patient and take one step at a time!

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