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Have you ever gone to a party you didn’t particularly want to attend so you wouldn’t hurt someone’s feelings? Do you find yourself going along with someone else’s opinion even if you don’t fully agree with them? Or have you ever indulged a friend in a conversation that is triggering for your own mental health because you couldn’t bear to say no?
Finding it hard to turn someone away, even if it gets in the way of our own lives, is known as people-pleasing. Therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, who has worked in psychology for 20 years, is here to pinpoint what it is and how to get a handle on it.
“Generally speaking, a people pleaser is someone who says yes to something when they really want to say no,” says Dr Ben-Ari, who works with clients to help them understand how psychological processes and childhood conditioning could be shaping their behaviour.
“You might be a people pleaser if you are saying yes to something that you don’t feel able to do, doesn’t fit with your values, would cause you an inconvenience, you feel is unfair, is at your expense, or you simply don’t want to do.”
While it may be difficult to make changes to curb your people-pleasing, Dr Ben-Ari says it’s important to understand that no situation is forever, including the discomfort of letting someone down for your own reasons. Here are six steps you can take to get your people-pleasing in check.
Decide where you want to put your energy
Dr Ben-Ari says that it’s important to reflect on someone’s request of you if you feel hesitant or have a physical reaction to it.
“Get into the habit of saying ‘I will need to think about it. Let me come back to you on this and let you know,’” she recommends. “You can then reflect, by asking yourself: is this something I want to do? Is it in line with my values? Do I have the capacity to do this? Understanding this will help you make a decision.”
Whether this request is attached to a major event – like a wedding – or just hanging out when you need to take space for yourself, decide whether your energy is best placed in this situation.
If you say “no”, make sure you do so in a respectful way
If you’ve decided to put your need to please someone aside and say “no” to them to prioritise your own needs, that’s great. But, as Ben-Ari says, “it’s important to validate that person’s need for support and acknowledge their potential disappointment.” Basically, let them down as easily – and as rationally – as possible.
“Explain your reasons in a way that talks about your own feelings or situation, rather than focusing on the other person or positioning yourself as the victim,” Ben-Ari says. “For example, you could say ‘I understand that this is a really challenging time and you were counting on me. At the moment I have so much on my plate that I need to prioritise my time and energy, so I cannot take on any more responsibilities”.
Find the right alternative support if you can’t give it
If you don’t feel that you can help the person in question in the way you want you to – whether that means supporting their desire for late-night partying, or something more serious – try and find someone else who can give them what they’re looking for.
“If you are unable to help your friend with a project, suggest someone who might be able to or direct them to a community who might be able to help,” Ben-Ari says. That way, you are showing this person that you’re in their corner, and am providing them with alternative support, even if you’re not able to follow through with what they need completely.
It’s your mind, and you are within your rights to change it
You may have agreed to something that you think is in your best interests, but you come to realise it isn’t. While it’s not a nice experience to let people down – or to be let down – Ben-Ari says honestly is always the best policy.
“If you have committed to something you can no longer do, be open and honest, apologise and explain that you are overwhelmed,” she says. “When you explain sincerely, you might find that your friends or family not only understand but also can be a source of help. ”
Provide an explanation for your decisions, but keep it simple
A key element of people-pleasing is assuming you need to give loads of reasons why you can’t do something that someone else wants you to do. But according to Ben-Ari, just one explanation of your perspective will suffice.
“You don’t need to give lots of reasons for saying no,” she says. “But explaining your perspective respectfully can help. For example: ‘I have thought about this very carefully, but I’m afraid it is not financially viable for me at this point.’”
Stay open to saying ‘yes’ in the future
As hard as saying no to this invitation – or disagreeing with a friend’s opinion – is, remember that one decision doesn’t have to define the rest of your relationship with that someone. “If it is something you have been offered in the past, and perhaps enjoyed it, you might want to schedule a check-in conversation about it for the next month or so – some decisions are not forever,” Ben-Ari says.
She recommends applying clear boundaries on things you’re definitely not interested in, and then categorising things you may want to return to when it’s the right time for you, not someone else.
How to stop saying yes to things you don’t want
Above all Kalanit stresses that it’s important to remember that as a people pleaser, you’re not doing anything right or wrong when you fall into these habits.
Rather, she says, it’s about “expanding your toolbox to find the balance between caring for others and caring for yourself. Both are important, and it is about finding that balance.”
- You don’t have to give an answer straight away. You can go away, reflect on what’s been asked of you and then come to a decision later. Don’t feel pressured to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ straight away.
- There are constructive ways to say ‘no’ without being disrespectful. If you have to give a reason why, explain in terms of your feelings or situation rather than those of the person who’s asking something of you.
- Saying ‘no’ doesn’t define you and doesn’t define your relationship with other people, it’s just a step in the right direction of setting healthy boundaries for yourself which will help your relationships in the long term.
Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, relationship therapist
Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari is a senior therapist, author, speaker, parental advisor and therapist supervisor. She runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London, and is the chairperson of Imago UK – an organisation with an international approach to relationship therapy.