How To Say No: 5 Steps To Stop Being A People Pleaser : Life Kit Constantly saying yes to everything and everyone drains us of time and energy. This episode helps explain the roots of people-pleasing behaviors and how you can say no more often.
NPR logo

How To Say No, For The People Pleaser Who Always Says Yes

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/913207918/915504755" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How To Say No, For The People Pleaser Who Always Says Yes

How To Say No, For The People Pleaser Who Always Says Yes

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/913207918/915504755" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MEGHAN KEANE, HOST:

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Meghan Keane. I'm the managing producer. For years now, I have identified as a people pleaser. I took so much pride in being the coworker who took on every project, even if I had too much on my plate. I was also the friend who said yes to every happy hour invite, even though I knew I just really had to do laundry that night. But what could I do? I was a certified, grade-A people pleaser. This was my identity, right?

NATALIE LUE: I do think that the world does socialize a lot of us into being people pleasers, and people pleasing is a habit.

KEANE: That's Natalie Lue.

LUE: I am a writer, blogger, speaker, podcaster over on my website, baggagereclaim.com, which just turned 15 at the weekend.

KEANE: Wow. They grow up so fast.

LUE: I know, I know. I feel like it's approaching adulthood and I have to figure out what university it's going to go to.

KEANE: Natalie says people pleasing doesn't need to be so deeply intertwined with our identities because it's actually a habit. And while it's not easy, habits can change.

LUE: You'd be amazed as well at how many people go, oh, I'm just such a people pleaser. But they actually don't really know what that means or how that's showing up in their life. Whereas actually, it's like, if you can even cut back on people pleasing, you will find that life is very different for you very, very quickly. For me, I'm in my 40s, and I feel like I've entered a phase in my life where I care less and less about what people think or what people expect of it.

KEANE: Ah, it feels good.

LUE: It feels so good. It's taken, you know, 40-something years to get here.

(LAUGHTER)

KEANE: Our hope today is to maybe, like, speed up that clock a little bit, right?

LUE: (Laughter) Yes, exactly.

KEANE: This episode of LIFE KIT - curbing people pleasing, and how it's not just about saying no.

So let's kind of just get a definition straight. Like, what does people pleasing look like? What do people think it looks like? And what are some, actually, kind of, like, insidious ways that people people please and they don't even realize it?

LUE: So a lot of people think that people pleasing equals being a doormat and being a suck-up. But people pleasing is basically doing what might for all intentions and purposes be good things, but for the wrong reasons. We suppress and repress who we are to please others so that we can gain attention, affection, approval, love or validation, or to avoid conflict, criticism, increased stress, disappointment, loss and rejection.

KEANE: Yeah. And it's also - I find it can be a very sneaky behavior, where a lot - like you said, a lot of people think that people pleasing is you're a doormat and you just - people walk all over you. But sometimes it looks like hyper-confidence, right?

LUE: Yeah. Perfectionism is basically a form of people pleasing. On some level, you hold yourself to a very high standard - likely an unrealistic standard - because of what you think you might get or what it will help you to avoid. And a lot of people pleasers are over-givers. And workplaces are full of people pleasers. And you know who they are? They're the ones who always clean out the microwave. They always clean out the fridge. You know, people pleasers are the one who will stay quiet and let somebody else take credit for their work. They will stay quiet because they don't want to be seen as loud and aggressive and demanding and rude.

For a people pleaser, in situations where you are afraid of displeasing others, where your priority is to be liked, where you are afraid of rejection, you are going to find it very, very difficult to do what you need to do for you. You're going to find it very difficult to have boundaries. You're very likely to go against yourself as a people pleaser in that instance.

KEANE: So who do you feel like falls into this trap of people pleasing the most? Like, who are kind of, like, the people who are prone to this behavior?

LUE: I think that women are socialized to be people pleasers anyway, particularly depending on which generation. Like, I'm born in the '70s. And as women, we are told as young girls, be meek, be mild, be kind and sweet. We are - we're told that certain things are aggressive or rude or not feminine.

KEANE: And I wonder, too - I think about my friends and colleagues who are marginalized identities and how they walk through the world and how it's also, it seems, like a level of survival technique, too...

LUE: Absolutely.

KEANE: ...For some people, as well.

LUE: Well, people pleasing is a response to old hurt and loss, but it is undoubtedly, without a shadow of a doubt a survival and coping mechanism that we've learnt in childhood and then just continued on in adulthood. But you are also so right that depending on your background, your culture, your race, whether you're from a marginalized community, you will also - may have felt that you have to suppress and repress aspects of yourself or try to tone-police yourself to fit in with the more dominant group.

And so for instance, me. As you know, I'm a Black woman, but I was born in England, raised in Dublin, Ireland, you know, traveled a bit. But part of my people pleasing was also about 10 years of my education. I was the only Black person in whatever educational establishment that I was in. And you don't realize how you consciously and unconsciously edit and adapt yourself to fit in so that you are less conspicuous, so that you - so that people see you as being acceptable, so that you don't attract, for instance, hate from somebody.

And bear it in mind, as children, we, you know, feel things that don't make sense to us, that don't feel good. And we look for reasons consciously and unconsciously to explain why these might be because, of course, we don't want to be in that situation again.

KEANE: So talk a little bit more about how people pleasing can really work against you and why we're so drawn to it even though we know it's not exactly...

LUE: (Laughter).

KEANE: ...A great thing. I mean, like you - when you lay it all out, it's like, why do I even do this? (Laughter) I mean, like...

LUE: Yeah.

KEANE: I know why I do it. Like, you're explaining why. But it is, like - it's so insidious.

LUE: Yeah. But it's - the thing about survival and coping mechanisms that we've learned in childhood is that they become maladaptive. Like, we're not supposed to continue on with it in adulthood. So here we are, and we're like, oh, well, I've got all the way through childhood into adulthood with this. This is how I get my brownie points. This is how I avoid this and that. And then it becomes like (laughter) this habit of diminishing returns.

The thing about people pleasing is that because we are basically misappropriating our good qualities, it is very easy to take on people pleasing as an identity. And it's why I have had so many people say to me, OK. So I cut back on people pleasing, and now I'm just going to become, like, an a-hole (ph). Like, everybody's going to hate me.

KEANE: Right (laughter). Yeah, is the opposite just to say no every chance you can, right?

LUE: (Laughter) Yeah.

KEANE: Maybe that's too extreme.

LUE: Yeah. And it's like, everybody's going to hate me. Everybody's going to abandon me. You know, I can't help it that I'm a good listener...

KEANE: (Laughter).

LUE: ...That, you know, I'm kind and generous and all of these things. I'm looking at them going, what? No. You can be a good listener and kind and generous and giving with boundaries. So if you derive your value and your sense of purpose from being needed, from going around and pleasing others, then you're going to be like, oh, my gosh, I will be naked without this.

KEANE: Yeah. It's unsettling. It's a big shift. It's no small task to start to think about how you can pull back some of these tendencies maybe on, like, a small scale at first. So let's...

LUE: Yes.

KEANE: ...Transition into some strategies. So I'm just going to give you a situation here. So let's say I'm getting a request from a co-worker, and I just know it's, like, not going to work at all. Like, I already know. But I have this, like, siren in my chest going off, and I really want to people please. And it's happening. What should I do in that moment?

LUE: There is great power in the pause, I say to people, because you actually get to notice what you're thinking and feeling, what's being asked of you and whether it's really appropriate for the situation. And so just because a colleague asks us something, it doesn't mean that we've got to turn around and be like, oh, OK then. But also, like, it's just a suggestion. Like, it's just feedback.

KEANE: Yeah. That's good. That's a good reminder.

LUE: And it's not a court order.

KEANE: (Laughter).

LUE: Like, oh my God, like, I came along. And I asked you this thing, so get to it right now. And so we have to remind ourselves of that. Like, was this a demand? - because if we're behaving like it's a demand when the person has basically just made a suggestion, then we can calm down this inner dialogue with us. In those situations as well where people make these suggestions about changing something, it is actually OK for us to say, do you know what? We're very far down the road now on this, and it is too late to be going and making a change like this.

Yes, in some instances, depending on the context, it works to give a brief explanation of why the change isn't possible because some people can feel as if they are being shut down straight away. But I always say to people, particularly when you're a pleasers - is you have to be careful of overexplaining because then a person's standing there in front of you going, OK, like, I just asked what you had to...

KEANE: It wasn't that big of a deal.

(LAUGHTER)

LUE: Right. It really wasn't a thing.

KEANE: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

LUE: And it's looking at, well, what type of things tend to stress you out? If you don't notice - if you haven't noticed before what it is that sets you off, pay attention to that. But also notice, like, how are you feeling over the course of the day?

KEANE: Do you recommend, like, a journal for, like, a certain amount of time?

LUE: Yeah. I recommend, like, spending a week just observing. I say to them, don't judge it. Just observe. See it as you're gathering intel. How many yeses? How many nos? People pleasers do not have many nos or even maybes in their week. But what you really want to notice is other situations where before, you're being like, oh, no. I couldn't say no to that. And then you do, and it's like, oh. The sky is still up there.

KEANE: Right.

LUE: I am OK. Like, the world has not basically collapsed all around me.

KEANE: Exactly.

LUE: And are there other ones in there that the moment that you thought about saying no to that, you were filled with dread, panic, overwhelm, shame, whatever it might be? That's what you're looking for. Once you've gathered this intel, you then have an idea of, OK. There may be some small things that you can cut back because you know what? We don't need to go to 50% immediately. But starting to actually cut back allows us to get a feel of what it can be like to be somebody who allows themselves to say or show no on occasion.

KEANE: So how do we say no? So what are some good starter kit...

LUE: (Laughter).

KEANE: ...Templates that people can practice with to say no?

LUE: Well, what I teach people is to recognize that there is such a thing as a hard no and a soft no. And the reason why I say this is a hard no is it's clear and concise. Not harsh - it's just clear, concise, you know, brief. So, no, thank you, or, you know, thanks ever so much for asking, but I'm not able to this week. That's a hard no. Soft nos are where you give more of an explanation and where it's not necessarily - you don't necessarily start out with no, but you might start out with, well, I (vocalizing) but I can't, so - but thank you. The mistake that people make with nos is they get very, very fluffy, very, very detailed.

KEANE: (Laughter).

LUE: And all the person wants from you is a straight answer. They're going to feel like, oh, my God, like, have I done something terrible by asking this person to do this? Or why is this person telling me, like, oh, well, my cat got stuck up a tree. And then, you know, I don't have any clean underwear today and da-da-da-da-da (ph).

KEANE: (Laughter).

LUE: And it's like, mate. I just asked you, you know, is it possible for you to do da-da-da-da-da? And so people can feel a bit overwhelmed by that or feel quite irritated or resentful with you for doing that. And so we don't need to go so fluffy and over-apologetic (ph) with our nos.

KEANE: So what's, like, a good - what's a good, like, quick, like, non-fluffy soft no?

LUE: Thank you ever so much for asking me to do this project. It sounds really exciting, but I don't have the bandwidth for it at this time.

KEANE: Elegant.

LUE: Yeah.

KEANE: Yeah.

LUE: It's like, you thanked them. You know, it sounds really interesting. Although please do not say that if it is not true...

KEANE: Right. (Laughter) Don't lie.

LUE: ...Because if you tell people - yeah.

KEANE: Yeah. You still shouldn't lie if you want - if you're trying to say no.

LUE: Yeah. There's a - there's actually a specific reason for that - is that some people feel as if you have to compliment the person and make out like what they've asked you is really, really great and that you would do it under other circumstances, which means that if that comes up again, the person's going to ask you because you told them that it was great and that you would do it under other circumstances when what you really meant was, actually, thank you ever so much for asking me. That project sounds really exciting. But that's not my lane, or that's not for me or whatever...

KEANE: Right.

LUE: ...That might be. And so we have to turn around and just be like, I can't do that. I don't want to do that. Most people - not all but most people prefer to know exactly where they stand.

KEANE: Oh...

LUE: Even if they feel a little bit disappointed...

KEANE: Yes.

LUE: They prefer to know where they stand.

KEANE: It just saves everyone so much time.

LUE: Yes.

KEANE: And I feel like it actually - it makes people trust you more...

LUE: Yeah.

KEANE: ...Because you - I think something with people pleasing that I've done is that I want to people please because I want people to like me...

LUE: Yeah.

KEANE: ...And to feel like they trust me. But then if they're just seeing that I'm kind of anxiously trying to move everything around to make everyone feel OK, then they kind of see right through that. And it just makes me a less trustworthy person or seemingly less...

LUE: Yeah.

KEANE: ...Trustworthy person.

LUE: I also say as well that part of the reason why we can benefit from pausing as a people pleaser is because we don't take enough account of what I call our bandwidth. So we don't really check our schedule. We don't check in with us and go, hm, how has my day been going so far? Or how is my week? How am I feeling as a person? We just load us up.

KEANE: Yeah.

LUE: We just load it all on. And then it's, like, OK, well, I'll figure it all out later and suffer. I'll miss dinner. I'll work late. I'll just give myself a really, really hard time later on and let down somebody that I actually don't want to let down because that's another big thing with people pleasers...

KEANE: Yeah.

LUE: ...Is letting down people and missing out on things that we actually do want to do because we've been too busy turning around and saying yes to stuff that we shouldn't. So the whole bandwidth thing is that every single person has bandwidth - their own personal bandwidth. And that is basically our capacity to be, do and have the things that we need and want.

So the reason why I encourage people to observe their week is because the more of our time, energy, effort and emotions spent being and doing things that we don't actually need or want to do is the less bandwidth we have. So we're going around as people pleasers spending up our bandwidth like it's just going to keep, you know, topping itself up. But the way that we're spending our bandwidth means that, actually, we affect our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual health.

KEANE: Yeah. I'm so glad you bring up this idea of bandwidth because I think what - like you're saying, like, people pleasing really kind of distracts you from yourself and your sense of self. And kind of these small steps like you're saying - like, keeping a journal, observing your people pleasing, learning how to say no - the soft no - it really helps you not just, you know, give you a little bit more time and energy, but it helps to you just remind yourself who you actually are and what you actually want.

LUE: Yeah, absolutely because the - a big thing that can change people pleasing for you is distinguish between desire and obligation because if something feels like an obligation, that is something that isn't, generally speaking, going to feel very good for us. We're going to end up feeling resentful and afraid, possibly some shame, possibly some guilt around that. And so if as a people pleaser you can notice, do I feel like I have to do this, or do I feel as if I want to do this? - but if we start to notice how much of what we're feeling is about desire, then we get to also understand, oh, when we're doing things that are based on a place of desire - which isn't always going to be about things that we're, like, you know, jumping around going, oh, yes, I can't wait to do it. But it's, like, oh, I want to do that. Like, that's who I am. I'm happy to give it. You know, that's fine. But when we start to notice how much of our life is about that versus a sense of obligation, we then have an opportunity to reassess and really look at, oh, wow. Like, we might look at our week and be, like, geez, I spent, like, 90% of my week doing stuff that feels like I'm trapped or obliged.

KEANE: Yeah.

LUE: Wow. This is why I'm anxious. Wow. This is why I wake up feeling, you know, this sort of sense of dread. Like I say to people, if you do things from a place of guilt or obligation, it is guaranteed to lead to resentment. So all of this going around being nicey-nice (ph) and doing all this people pleasing is also just covering up all of this hidden anger underneath.

KEANE: Yeah.

LUE: And people pleasing as well (laughter) - I don't know if you've - if sometimes noticed this as well, but it's about showing others how to behave. So when we're, like, trying to be, like, employee of the year or girlfriend or boyfriend of the year or whatever, it's like we're dropping hints. The other person's, like, look at all of this stuff I'm doing. Why can't you be better at what you're supposed to be doing?

KEANE: Right.

LUE: I'm a good person. Why can't you be a good person?

KEANE: And if they don't deliver, that's where the resentment comes in for...

LUE: Yeah.

KEANE: ...A people pleaser.

LUE: After everything I've done for you...

KEANE: Right.

LUE: Yeah. And that is...

KEANE: Yeah.

LUE: ...Like, the calling card of people pleasers - is that even if we don't necessarily say the words, like, after everything I've done for you, there is this sense of, I have been robbed.

KEANE: Right.

LUE: I have been used.

KEANE: Oh, my God - completely.

LUE: I have been short-changed, taken advantage of. And I say, do you know what? OK. Fair enough because, of course, if you're always the giver, what does the other person have to be? - the taker.

KEANE: Yeah. Well, I am very glad that you said yes to this interview because I think a lot of people are going to get a lot out of it - that you didn't have to give me a soft no. So thank you very much for...

(LAUGHTER)

KEANE: ...For saying yes to this because I really do think this is incredibly helpful, and people really crave this information.

LUE: Thank you so much for having me. It was a real pleasure to talk to you today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: That was Natalie Lue of Baggage Reclaim.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEANE: So let's recap. Takeaway No. 1 - get some data.

LUE: Notice how you spend your bandwidth - that time, energy, effort and emotion. How are you spending it in yes, no and maybes? The next is notice the difference between wanting to do something and being, like, oh, my God - like, the anxiety, the resentment, the frustration. Like, start to notice, how do I feel when I sense somebody else's need or when somebody asks me to do something?

KEANE: Takeaway No. 2 - understand your bandwidth and then learn to respect it.

LUE: Start paying attention to, what are my energy levels like today? How am I feeling today? How am I doing today? If you notice that you're not feeling too great, if you notice your energy isn't too great, guess what? Don't load yourself up at the same level as you did the previous day.

KEANE: Takeaway No. 3 - learn the difference between a desire and an obligation.

LUE: But when we start to notice how much of our life is about that versus a sense of obligation, we then have an opportunity to reassess.

KEANE: Takeaway No. 4 - before you say yes, pause. And takeaway No. 5 - learn the art of the soft no.

For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. There's one about how to start therapy and another about living with uncertainty. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And here as always is a completely random tip, this time from Daniel Murphy (ph).

DANIEL MURPHY: Have you ever gotten home from the store and realized your peaches weren't ripe yet? The trick is to put them in a brown paper bag and let them sit on the counter for a day or two. The bag holds in a gas that the peaches give off and causes them to ripen quicker. Check the bag after one to two days, and they should be slightly soft and give off a really fragrant scent.

KEANE: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Meghan Keane. Thank you for listening.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.