the word NO in lights on a dark background.

Say No to People Pleasing and Embrace Your True Freedom

It’s my birthday this week and I’ve taken the opportunity to stop and reflect on my life and where I’m at. Even in the business I’m in, I sometimes find myself riding the wave of momentum that I forget to jump off and take some time to think. My programme, The Power Within, prompted that for me recently, and I’ve spent this last weekend really thinking about my life, what I want and how I will get there.

One of the things I know about myself is that I’m a people pleaser. I’ve never wanted to rock the boat, never wanted others to think badly of me and never wanted to live with the guilt from worrying about what others think. Saying ‘no’ to the request of others is something I have found very challenging. And, even at my ripe new age of 53 years old, this is still something that I must work hard on as it’s a habit I still haven’t conquered.

My trouble is that I struggle with caring too much about what others think, and more-so the impact that my choices have on others. I’ve constantly given throughout my life, either professionally or personally, and I therefore want to help others and make things better for them. I don’t want someone to continue feeling overwhelmed and panicked because I’ve said I don’t have the time to help. I don’t want others to struggle to meet a deadline, because I’ve said I’ve not got the capacity either. I don’t want my friends to feel disappointed with me because I’ve said no to a girly night out because I’m just too tired. You get the picture, right? I feel the reaction of the other people, which causes me greater internal conflict. And believe me, it has caused me great strife over the years.

However, I also know that if I don’t learn to use the ‘power of no’ then I am then saying ‘yes’ to things I don’t want for myself. So, if I say ‘yes’ to helping my colleague meet their deadline, then I’ve also said ‘yes’ to having to work unpaid overtime to finish my own work which I put aside to help my colleague. If I say ‘yes’ to reluctantly going on the girls’ night out, then I’ve also said ‘yes’ to being exhausted for the next couple of days. If I say ‘yes’ to joining my colleagues on a twice weekly after work gym class, then I’m also saying ‘yes’ to not spending time with my family.

We all have choices. But, making choices is not always easy, especially when you are a people pleaser. I once had a colleague who would regularly say ‘no’ to people’s requests, whether they were personal requests or professional. She had no qualms whatsoever to put herself first. I was never comfortable being around her when she said ‘no’ because I used to internally cringe for the recipient who was left cut down in their tracks, still holding onto their unresolved problem, and feeling rather embarrassed they asked. I used to think my colleague was rude and unhelpful, but in reflection, she did the right thing for herself, and often for her colleagues and friends. Sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind, and she was a master of that. Saying ‘no’ meant others had to reconsider what they were trying to achieve, but it also meant that it kept the monkeys off her shoulders, and she wasn’t compelled to carry the challenges and problems of others. I suppose a bit of tact wouldn’t have gone wrong, but I (now) admire her self-preservation.

So how can we preserve our own wellbeing, but stay aligned to who we are as people? That’s a big question and it requires a few steps to negotiate.

Firstly, we should identify where we need to set boundaries in our lives. “I’m too busy” and “I’ve just not enough time!” are common responses you hear a lot these days. So how can we make more space in our lives? Ideally, we need to create more balance in our lives so we can gain better perspective and to take stock. It’s really important to consider what we want in life and establish what we want our lives to be like. However, this is something we can’t possibly achieve if we don’t have the time and space to give that serious consideration. Once we create some space, by setting some boundaries, we can then focus on the ‘bigger picture’ of our desired life.

Let’s consider how we make that space.

It’s important to spend time reflecting on the areas of our lives where we need to take back some control, so we are able to operate at a more manageable pace. Start by thinking about all areas in your life – family, friends, work, finances, and so on. You may wish to use a wheel of life for this reflection. (see below). Give yourself a score out of 10 with relation to each area of that wheel. If you score a 7 or above, you are doing okay there, but if you are scoring below a 7 you might want to consider what changes you need to make to take back some control.

A wheel of life with 8 different sections for you to score against, out of ten.

Next you might want to consider how your values are impacted in each of those areas of your life. Being misaligned to our values can cause a lot of conflict in our lives, and it may be that setting certain boundaries may cause some misalignment for you. For example, if you have a value of being empathetic, then you may struggle with the consequences of not helping others. If one of your values is respect then you not only expect to be treated respectfully, but also you would need and want to treat others with respect and saying ‘no’ others might make you feel disrespectful. If one of your values is equality, then you expect to treat others equally and to be treated yourself equally. Saying ‘no’ might conflict with that value also. You see our values are really our moral compass and they help keep us on the right track in our lives. If we live a life aligned to our values, then we live a more purposeful and meaningful life. Our values are not the be all and end all when it comes to saying ‘no’, but reflecting on them can help us manage our responses to others.

For people-pleasers saying ‘no’ requires practice. For this article, let’s say that you are saying ‘yes’ to everything in work, as you are relatively new in role, and you want to make a good impression. It’s a challenge to say ‘no’ to your boss, without that having a detrimental impact on you. Therefore, it is really important that we take time to practice and rehearse saying ‘no’ but also, to master the art of compromise. Let’s start by thinking of some responses we can say that can help:

  • “I don’t have the capacity at the moment to complete that task now, but I’m sure in a couple of days I will be able to take it on.”
  • “If that task is urgent, what would you like me to drop for now?”
  • “I can give you ten minutes of my time now, or if you come back tomorrow, I can give you up to an hour of my time.”

Now as I’m typing this, I’m already squirming, thinking back to my previous work contexts and how those responses might have gone down. However, when I step out of that emotional place and look again, the responses above are not definitive ‘no’ responses, they are offering alternative solutions, compromises whilst taking control of your situation. You are standing up for yourself without being aggressive or confrontational, and you are highlighting that you are already at capacity. And the icing on the cake – they also show your boss that you are good at time management! Most importantly, you are showing yourself that you matter. That you are the most important person in your professional relationship, that your wellbeing and workload is important, that your time scales are important, and that you come first. And let’s not forget, there is nothing wrong with that! The only people who hold us back from those responses are ourselves, and we must learn to get out of our way and be ready with a well-prepared and practiced response.

The examples above work for the workplace, but your contexts of challenge might differ, so think how best you might respond to family members or friends, when you need to set boundaries for you with those people.

Spend some time rehearing your responses. Visualise how you will be: calm, collected, polite, quietly confident, solving the problem without compromising yourself in the process. We are no longer children who need to be biddable in life. We are adults, with free choice and a right to decide what we want in our lives. Once we step over the hurdle of conditioning, we can move past any people-pleasing guilt we might encounter.

Visualising and practicing are the best ways to build our ability to set boundaries. Even if you need a script to help you then you will be able to practice those to become more confident at saying ‘no’. Then once you become more confident and able to say ‘no’ without guilt, you will realise that you are saying ‘yes’ to all the good things in your life. You’re saying ‘yes’ to balance, ‘yes’ to free time, ‘yes’ to a full lunch break, ‘yes’ to more time with your family, and so on.

Setting boundaries is not a selfish act, but an essential selfless one. As people-pleasers we have been conditioned in life to be ‘a good girl’, not to ‘let people down’ or merely to be liked. It’s important to shed those expectations of others. We are not responsible for the feelings or emotions of others. Nor are we responsible for how others react to us or for the situations that others find themselves in. If you are reading this thinking, I don’t want to be that selfish, please know this isn’t about being selfish, it’s about being kind to yourself. It’s about valuing who you are and what you need and ensuring that your wellbeing is as protected and nurtured as possible. That way, you can live the life you want, and you will have the time and space to follow your heart’s desires.

You don’t need to say ‘no’ to everything. As you begin to focus your awareness to how you are and how you respond in situations, you will learn to offer help and kindness when it is needed. You will know what is right for you in someone else’s time of need, but you will also know how to respond so that you are not selling your soul in the process.

So, take time to:

  • identify where you need to set boundaries,
  • identify where your values align,
  • practice your responses and visualise saying those responses, and
  • put yourself first.

In time, you will realise how much of your ‘power’ you have given away to others. How much space and time you do have when you acknowledge what you need, and how much happier a person you have become because of this simple exercise.

So, on my birthday week, as a gift to you, I am offering one free 1-1 coaching session to help you take action on setting boundaries for yourself. I will challenge and support you to find the right way forward which is right for you. If you would like to be put into the draw for this session then please complete this form, which closes at the end of November.

Remember, nothing will change unless you make the change.

Now, read that again.

P.S. Just by magic I found the following image on social media. Perfect timing indeed, so thank you @becomingminimalist for sharing!

A reminder about saying No in November. Text on a dark image.

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