Sal here. It took me until I was 33 to realise I was a hardcore people pleaser. Saying ‘Yes’ to everything was my modus operandi, to me, putting others first and jumping at every opportunity was always a good idea. ‘You never know who you might meet or what might come of it!’ I would tell myself. But actually, my lack of saying ‘No’ was one of the root causes of my anxiety and frequent bouts of exhaustion.
It took me so long to link the two because people-pleasing was ingrained in me. Saying ‘No’ felt like a rejection to others and one I didn’t want to give. I wanted to be liked, and saying ‘No’ often triggered guilt or constant worry about letting someone down.
Looking around at my friends, I’m not the only one. A simple ‘No’ can be one of the most challenging things to do, even when it’s in your best interest. It’s only one word – how difficult can it be? As it turns out, it’s very.
Some of us may feel obligated to say ‘Yes’ to everything asked of us. I’m guilty of it, too. Playing a caretaker role or always being available might be the norm if you’ve grown up in a challenging family environment like I did. We’re taught to be agreeable, so we grow up thinking that saying ‘No’ isn’t an option because we’re socialised to put other people first. In the age of social media, saying yes to everything can also come from a fear of missing out (FOMO).
By saying ‘Yes’ and jumping to accept every invite without stopping to think if it was something I wanted to do, I felt anxious about going or equally anxious if I then cancelled. I often worried that if I said ‘No’ to something, I’d miss out on an opportunity or experience that could be valuable. Which only led to me stretching myself way thin by over-committing. Constantly saying Yes led me to feel emotionally and physically burnt out and fall into a heap of overwhelm and resentment – a bit like a total wipeout, but self-inflicted.
One of the most significant shifts that has helped me is something Allira Potter, a boundary expert, taught us when we spoke to her on the pod. It’s called the ‘pause’ and extends beyond simply saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Pause and think, ‘Does this feel right to me?’ or ‘Do I actually want to do this?’. Responding immediately without thinking, out of our desire to please, is when we put ourselves into situations that we might later resent.
After facing a severe health issue, the critical step to her remission, she says, was paying attention to when something felt off or when her limits were being stretched. For her, becoming more transparent about what she wanted also helped her grow into her authentic self.
Like Allira, Nat suggests that pausing to pay attention when something doesn’t feel right can be an alarm bell that we’re people-pleasing. It can also be an indicator that a boundary is being overstepped. She walks you through this exercise in her book, The Joy of Saying No, and I found it compelling, simply keeping a log in the notes app on my phone. I noticed how many times I automatically people pleased, like saying ‘Sorry’ to a random stranger for no reason or letting someone interrupt me. This tactic has helped me immensely and boiled down to learning to advocate for myself and what I need. We talk to Nat about this in more detail in our podcast interview with her, which you can listen to here.
Next time you’re asked to do something you feel you don’t have the bandwidth for, take heed of Megan Bruneau’s advice in this Forbes article. She says, ‘Just because you can help doesn’t mean you should. If you feel equipped to help emotionally and energetically, and doing so alleviates the pain of seeing someone else in need, do. But if you’re feeling burnt out and pressured or guilted into helping, chances are you need to take that time to look after yourself.’
Amen to that.
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