People-pleasers “want everyone around them to be happy and they will do whatever is asked of them to” keep it that way, according to Susan Newman, Ph.D, a New Jersey-based social psychologist and author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It—And Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.
“They put everyone else before themselves,” she said. For some, saying “yes” is a habit; for others, “it’s almost an addiction that makes them feel like they need to be needed.” This makes them feel important and like they’re “contributing to someone else’s life.”
People-pleasers yearn for outside validation. Their “personal feeling of security and self-confidence is based on getting the approval of others,” said Linda Tillman, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta, GA and assertiveness expert. Thus, at the core, people-pleasers lack confidence, she said.
They worry how others will view them when they say no. “People don’t want to be seen as lazy, uncaring, selfish or totally egocentric,” Newman said. They fear “they’ll be disliked and cut from the group,” whether it’s friends, family or co-workers.
What many people-pleasers don’t realize is that people-pleasing can have serious risks. Not only does it put a lot of pressure and stress on you, Newman said, but “essentially you can make yourself sick from doing too much.” If you’re overcommitted, you probably get less sleep and get more anxious and upset. You’re also “depleting your energy resources.” “In the worst case scenario, you’ll wake up and find yourself depressed, because you’re on such overload because you possibly can’t do it all,” she said.
Here’s a slew of strategies to help you stop being a people-pleaser and finally say no.
1. Realize you have a choice.
People-pleasers often feel like they have to say yes when someone asks for their help. Remember that you always have a choice to say no, Newman said.
2. Set your priorities.
Knowing your priorities and values helps you put the brakes on people-pleasing. You know when you feel comfortable saying no or saying yes. Ask yourself, “What are the most important things to me?” Newman suggested.
Whenever someone asks you for a favor, it’s perfectly OK to say that you’ll need to think about it. This gives you the opportunity to consider if you can commit to helping them. (Also important is to ask the person for details about the commitment.)
Newman suggested asking yourself: “How stressful is this going to be? Do I have the time to do this? What am I going to give up? How pressured am I going to feel? Am I going to be upset with this person who’s asking?”
Asking yourself these questions is key because, as Newman said, very often after you’ve said yes or helped out, you’re left wondering, “What was I thinking?” I neither have the time nor the expertise to help out.
If the person needs an answer right away, “your automatic answer can be no,” Newman said. That’s because “Once you say yes, you’re stuck.” By saying no automatically, “you leave yourself an option” to say yes later if you’ve realized that you’re available. And “you’ve also gotten it off your must-do or don’t-want to do list.”
4. Set a time limit.
If you do agree to help out, “limit your time frame,” Newman said. Let the person know that “I’m only available from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.,” for example.
5. Consider if you’re being manipulated.
Sometimes, people are clearly taking advantage of you, so it’s important to watch out for manipulators and flatterers, Newman said. How do you spot them? She said, “Often the people who flatter you will say [statements like], ‘Oh you’re so good at baking cakes, would you make a cake for my child’s birthday?’ or ‘I don’t know how to put this bookcase together, but you’re so handy, can you help me out?’”
A classic line is “Nobody does this better than you do,” she said. Also, these people “will either coax you into doing something or try to tell you what your availability is or what your time frame is.” Basically, before you know it, they make the decision for you.
6. Create a mantra.
Figure out a mantra you can say to yourself to stop you from people-pleasing. It can even be a visual as simple as a big “No” flashing when a certain friend who “can always talk you into something” approaches you, Newman said.
7. Say no with conviction.
“The first no to anyone is always the hardest,” Newman said. But once you get over that first bump, “you will be well on your way to getting off the yes treadmill.” Also, remember that you’re saying no for good reasons. “You get time for yourself and for the people you really want to help,” she said.
8. Use an empathic assertion.
Some people initially think that being assertive means “stepping all over people,” Tillman said. Instead, she explained that “assertiveness is really about connection.”
Using an empathic assertion “means that you put yourself in the other person’s shoes as you assert yourself,” Tillman said. So you let the person know that you understand where they’re coming from, but unfortunately, you can’t help. “People need to feel heard and understood,” and this is a respectful way of asserting yourself and saying no.
9. Consider if it’s worth it.
When asserting yourself, Tillman suggested asking yourself, “Is it really worth it?” It’s probably not worth it to tell your boss about his annoying habit, but it is worth it to tell your friend that you can’t do lunch because you’re super busy.
10. Don’t give a litany of excuses.
It’s tempting to want to defend your decision to say no to someone so they understand your reasoning. But this actually backfires. According to Newman, “As soon as you start explaining, you give the other person lots of wiggle room to come back and say, ‘Oh, you can do that later,’ ‘You can adjust your schedule’ or ‘That’s not as important as what I’m asking.’”