“Will you pick up my kids after school? I have an appointment I just can’t cancel.” “Yes, of course.” “Can you come over and feed my cat every day next week? My boyfriend surprised me with two tickets to Cancun!” “Sure.” “Can you pick me up after work next week? My car is in the shop and I don’t have anybody else to ask.” “Okay.” Sound familiar? Are you someone who just can’t say “no,” no matter what is asked of you, even if saying “yes” interferes with what you need or want to do? A “people pleaser” is the colloquial term for individuals who can’t say “no” when they should say “no.” In fact, just thinking about saying “no” can make a people pleaser feel anxious or even panic-stricken. Why do so many people have difficulties saying “no”? Is the inability to say “no” simply a personality trait or a more serious mental health issue that needs to be professionally addressed?
How Learning to Say “Yes” Begins in Childhood
Between the ages of one and four, children are taught to obey their parents. Once a child enters school, they are taught to comply with whatever teachers, law enforcement, doctors, and other authority figures ask or tell them to do. Initially, this compliance is based on the fear of being punished somehow. Ask any 10-year-old child what happens if they don’t obey a parent or teacher and they’ll inevitably say “I’ll get yelled at/grounded/put in a corner,” etc. Combined with the apprehension over being punished for disobeying is the strong desire to be liked, approved of, and loved. Add in the power of peer pressure that teens experience in high school and you’ve got a young adult who struggles with boundaries when faced with others’ requests, demands, and expectations. For many individuals, the dread of disappointing or hurting someone by declining a request becomes part of their self-identity as they mature from adolescence to adulthood. A people pleaser is fundamentally afraid of interpersonal conflict. They cannot deal with the thought of another person being angry with them. They may be afraid the person will start criticizing them or worse— abandon them or no longer love them.
Psychological Factors Underlying the Inability to Say “No”
Saying “yes” to requests for temporary help from family members and friends shows compassion, empathy, and love for the person asking for help. It makes us feel good about ourselves when we can make another person feel better about their situation. Humans have an enormous capacity for supporting people who are less fortunate than they are, regardless if that support involves lending money, running an errand, or just offering a shoulder to lean on. Do mental health issues contribute to being a people pleaser? In some cases, it can be traced back to:
Avoidant personality disorder: Someone with APD may go out of their way to avoid situations or circumstances that might involve rejection. They may also struggle with feelings of inhibition and hypersensitivity to negative feedback.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Neglected, abandoned, and abused children may become extreme people pleasers as a way to gain and maintain the approval and affection of others. Adults with traumatic pasts may think the only way they can “survive” is to constantly say yes to anything asked of them, thus avoiding abandonment or abuse.
Dependent personality disorder: People with dependent personality disorder may desperately want someone to take care of them, reassure them they always look “OK,” and make decisions for them. They may be extremely submissive and engage in people-pleasing behavior to ensure they are not left alone. Other signs of being a people pleaser that may or may not involve a clinical mental health issue include:
- Taking on extra projects or covering for others at your place of employment
- Overcommitting (accepting too many social invitations, promising to do too many things, etc.)
- Always replying “Me? Oh, I’m doing just great!” when someone asks how you are doing (when, in reality, you are not doing great)
- Listening to other people share opinions or beliefs that you disagree with and nodding and acting as if you agree with them
- Going along with the crowd because you don’t want to feel ostracized or rejected
The physical and psychological risks of not knowing how to say “no” can cause serious, long-term health problems. Feeling stressed, worn out, and resentful all the time may lead to the development of depression, hypertension, headaches, weight gain, and a loss of identity. People pleasers have been known to lose their jobs because they are so overly committed to others’ wishes and requests. When you are sick, exhausted, and stressed, your job performance can suffer, as well as your relationships with family members.
How to Let Someone Down Easy without Letting Yourself Down
It may take some time before learning how to get comfortable saying “no,” but it is vital to your health and wellbeing to understand that your needs must come first. Here are some polite but firm ways to turn down a person’s request to do something you don’t have time to do or really don’t want to do:
- “Thank you, but, that’s not really for me (not my style, not something I usually do).”
- “I’m so sorry, but I’ve over-committed myself at the moment and just can’t fit that project (appointment, date, etc) in. Can we perhaps try again next week (or month)?”
- “I’m sorry I can’t help you right now, but maybe (suggest another person or persons) could help you?”
- “I don’t think I’d be the right person to help you with this, sorry.”
- “I’m sorry that I can’t do that for you right now but am sure you’ll do a great job!”
- “Thank you for inviting me to your [event]. I appreciate your invitation but I have some previous commitments I can’t break.”
- “I would love to help out but my schedule is full right now. Maybe some other time?”
If you start saying “no” to people who have come to expect you to say “yes,” they may not take “no” for an answer easily. They could likely be shocked and a little angry the first time you lay down this healthy boundary. Don’t back down. Repeat your polite “no” statement if you have to and remain calm. Tell yourself that someone who is supposed to be a family member or friend would consider your situation and needs without becoming irritated or critical. Someone who wants to maintain a relationship with you should say, “Ok, thanks, anyway,” and move on. If being a “yes” person is causing mental health symptoms and/or interfering with your quality of life, it is worth talking to a therapist about taking control of your life!