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Ah, the people pleaser — we’re an interesting breed. We have a penchant for catering to other people’s will. A desire to bend over backward in service of others. We also have a fear of saying “no.” To us, it’s the scariest word in the world. But why is that? Why do we shy away from saying a word that boasts two letters and one syllable?
There’s a myriad of reasons why we find it painful in all aspects to deliver rejection. Not to mention, there could be childhood trauma and various underlying causes at play. Perhaps you were pressured by your parents as a kid to always keep on a happy face. “No” just wasn’t in your vernacular. Maybe saying “yes” is a means of safety — a way of protecting you from those who wish to do you harm.
Regardless, we often find ourselves in situations wherein we want to say no, but can’t. Let’s take a look at some of the “whys” behind our aversion to uttering a simple yet powerful word.
We’re Afraid of Conflict
Psychology Today mentions that we as people-pleasers (and human beings) fear conflict. We’re afraid of anything that could potentially derail our day or shove us into an uncomfortable situation. Who enjoys being uncomfortable? Not I? Conflict is breeding grounds for anxiety. And, for those of us who suffer from anxiety, we do everything we can to curtail it. Psychology Today makes a very valid point here:
“As children, we are taught not to go against authority. We are supposed to do what parents, teachers, and others in power tell us to do. We obey because of fears of being punished, but also because of a desire to please and be loved by these people who are very important to us. We carry this worry with us into adulthood.”
Think about it — our formative years mold us into the people we are today. That’s why therapists delve into our childhood. So much of our trauma and pain can be derived from there. Then, as adults, it’s imprinted in our minds that going against the grain may have repercussions.
Of course, as a people pleaser, we want everyone to “love” us. Perhaps if we say no, that love will stop coming our way. We all want to be accepted. To be part of an inner circle. To belong. Engaging in conflict, whether inadvertent or purposefully, can trigger our anxiety and stir within us that deep-seeded fear of abandonment and loneliness.
Fear of Letting People Down
Here’s the unofficial (but should be official) people pleaser mantra: “I don’t want to let anyone down.” We assume that by saying “no” we’re hammering the final nail in that relationship coffin. That’s it. We’ve disappointed everyone who’s ever claimed to love us. Be More Effective utilizes a sports analogy to explain our fear of letting folks down:
“Your colleagues might tell you that if you won’t do as they ask, then you’re not a ‘team player.’ What they won’t admit is that there are many different kinds of teams as well as a variety of types of behaviour that make teams what they are.
For example, a football team will have practice sessions where they play together, but each person on the team is expected to do his / her own personal strength training. In other words, they all are expected to take care of themselves as individuals. When you say, ‘No,’ you are being a team player because you’re making sure that you have the reserves that you need to serve the team as a whole.”
You have to take care of yourself. It’s like setting your personal boundaries. If someone is trying to persuade you to do something that could be detrimental to your wellbeing, you have every right to say no. You can reject them. It’s not necessarily a rejection of that person. That being said, if someone’s coercing you into wading into dangerously choppy waters, you probably shouldn’t associate yourself with this person anyway. They don’t have your best interests at heart.
If you’re a people pleaser, that innate fear of disappointing those around you will, most likely, always linger. But you can break the cycle by sticking to your guns. If it’s for your own good, say no. Protect yourself. Remember: “those who matter don’t mind and those who mind don’t matter.”
Anxiety Regarding the Alternative
Women are especially vulnerable to reprisals of the violent variety. Psychology Today dives into this very subject: why women have a difficult time saying no. Women are more likely to be the targets of street harassment and sexual abuse, although it’s not entirely uncommon for men to experience the same.
“Most women have a difficult time saying no, especially if they think someone’s feelings may be at stake or if they think they’ll not be liked. Despite what most women think, this is not some immutable gene or biological defect. Rather, its actually a socially learned coping mechanism that can, with a little time and attention, be unlearned.”
But fear or anxiety about the alternative to no or potentially dangerous consequences isn’t only exclusive to women. Everyone, regardless of gender, can be afraid of what happens after the no. The unknown is frightening. It’s like flying blind but then add in a volatile obstacle course you have to navigate coupled with fire-breathing dragons for fun.
It’s worth noting that those who’ve suffered from any kind of abuse usually struggle with saying no. They’ve learned that inciting conflict, even unintentionally, is like poking the bear. Best to keep that bear fed and happy than poke it.
“Well, if so-and-so jumped off a bridge, would you?” Peer pressure doesn’t end the minute we become adults. You’ve probably felt pressure from your peers to go out for a night of drinks and debauchery. Or pressure to partake in some less-than-stellar acts. However, it doesn’t stop there. You could feel overwhelming pressure from your boss to perform well at work. Unrelenting pressure from your many, many commitments and wholly stacked events calendar.
Now, what can pressure trigger? Anxiety. You know, that thing we all try to avoid feeling. Our desire to always outperform can stem from our childhood. Our parents pushing us to “be the best” in every facet of life. We’re told to strive for perfection, something that doesn’t exist. Then, we carry that with us into adulthood. But, like most ingrained habits derived from childhood, we can sever that link. We can break the cycle.
Accepting that you aren’t perfect and never will be perfect is the first step. Not to mention, refusing to succumb to peer pressure because you value yourself as a person. You don’t need to define your self-worth in other people. This is where establishing firm boundaries comes into play.
You Don’t Want to Be Viewed as “Difficult”
Again, women tend to encounter this more than their male counterparts. Women who don’t acquiesce tend to be viewed as “difficult.” “Aggressive.” “Bossy.” That being said, most people, in general, don’t want to be thought of as difficult or not pliable. In fact, we want to be as malleable as possible. Loosey-goosey. Someone who goes with the flow.
It’s all about boundaries and honoring your own boundaries. Firmly standing your ground. Not bowing down to those around you. I’d rather be viewed as difficult than compromise my boundaries. It’s not selfish, it’s self-care. If you feel uncomfortable doing something and someone’s incessantly pestering you to do the thing, tell them no. Remind them that your wellbeing comes first. Always trust your gut. It’ll never let you down.
I touched on this earlier, but I think it also deserves its own section. What happens in our formative years can leave an indelible mark on our hearts and minds. Of course, old patterns can be rooted out to make way for newer, healthier ones. But you have to exert effort. Put in the work.
Abuse can lead to so many uninformed and deeply ingrained patterns. You do what you can to survive. However, once you’re out of that volatile situation, those aforementioned patterns don’t hold up well in the outside world. Victims of abuse usually refrain from saying no out of fear of the repercussions. It’s a defense mechanism. You don’t know how the other person will react.
Look at it this way: your trauma doesn’t define you. You define you. And you can rise up above the pain by working through it. Peeling back the layers of hurt to find the cause. To find the malignant, vicious, poisonous trauma that has you in its ironclad grasp. If you want to protect yourself, say no.
Add “No” to Your Verbal Arsenal
It’s easier said than done, but forming a close bond with the word “no” can only help you, not hinder you. It’s beneficial for setting healthy boundaries and for keeping your wellbeing in mind. Telling someone “no” isn’t an affront to them — it’s an honoring of you. You can’t do everything and be everything for everyone. Overworking yourself and stretching yourself too thin is a slippery slope that can culminate in a bevy of health problems. Mentally and physically. So, nurture your mental health. Say no when you need to and mean it.