Need to know
In one of Aesop’s fables, a man and his son want to sell their donkey. Along the way, they encounter a number of people who criticise how they are walking the donkey to the market. Travellers mock them for not riding the donkey, merchants chastise the son for not allowing his older father to ride alone, and another group expresses sympathy for the donkey: ‘They look more able to carry the poor creature, than he to carry them,’ they say.
Adjusting their behaviour for each critique, the man and son switch to carrying the donkey by stringing him to a pole. The donkey breaks free and tumbles into a river. ‘By trying to please everybody, he had pleased nobody, and lost his Ass besides,’ the story concludes. Even if walking a donkey to market is not relatable, the moral certainly is: ‘If you try to please all, you please none.’
If you, like many people, have the sense that you’re constantly trying to please others or you’re forever acquiescing to a litany of requests, comments and external pressures – then this Guide is for you.
Your tendencies probably come from a good place. Research has shown that people-pleasing is often found in those who place immense value on creating and maintaining social relations. It’s related to a personality trait called sociotropy, says Toru Sato, a psychologist at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. Sociotropy is the preoccupation with making others happy and preserving social harmony.
People-pleasing is also linked with cultural or societal expectations, says Asnea Tariq, a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Reading. In some environments, there is strong emphasis on being accommodating and self-sacrificing, and you might be more subject to those pressures than others depending on your age, gender or position relative to those around you.
But if your inclination for people-pleasing – including a habitual willingness to say yes – goes too far, it can put you at risk for anxiety or depression. When it’s this extreme, people-pleasing is more than being nice or helpful. It goes beyond dropping off a neighbour’s laundry because you use the same laundromat, for instance. It can infringe upon your life in more dramatic ways, such as being late to your anniversary dinner because you couldn’t say no to a friend or to your boss’s request to run a frivolous errand. In excess, these behaviours can result in a ‘vanishing self’: by existing to please others, you risk losing sight of your own desires and needs.
If you feel your own people-pleasing has become extreme and is causing you distress, one simple but powerful way to help yourself is to get better at saying no. For this Guide, I spoke to several psychologists to find techniques for saying no more easily and effectively. It’s a valuable skill, even for those who feel only a gentle pull towards putting the needs of others before their own, so that you can start honouring yourself as much as you do others.
What to do
Put your yeses under the microscope
For most of us, a typical day involves fielding a succession of requests from different people. Many you truly want to abide by, while others you might feel you have no choice but to attend to. In between those two extremes, there will be many demands for which saying no is a reasonable option. Everyone needs to strike the right balance, but people pleasers can find themselves saying yes too often, and for the wrong reasons. So, how can you tell if you have what the psychologist Harriet Braiker called the ‘disease to please’?
This will require a version of what, in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is called self-monitoring; let’s call it ‘yes-monitoring’. For a week, keep track of all the requests you say yes to, how many there are, how these yeses make you feel, and how much these yeses interrupt your life – how much time the requests take.
At the end of the week, reflect on your notes and bear in mind that people-pleasing comes in many forms. It might manifest as a complete inability to say no: always agreeing to that extra project at work or watering your neighbour’s plants even when you’re feeling utterly burnt out. But it might also appear in more subtle ways than actively saying yes. You could want to seem nice and agreeable in every single interaction, hold back what you really think, say sorry for something that didn’t cause harm, or go massively out of your way to help others feel comfortable, even if it inconveniences you. In some cases, you might participate in risky behaviours that you don’t want to, so as not to disappoint or impede others around you.
Reflect on your motives for saying yes
In this way, it’s less about the quantity of the yeses you recorded during the previous week, and more about the why. People-pleasing, at its core, is about acceptance from others at all costs. According to work by Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, and his colleagues on sociotropy, people pleasers tend to feel safe only when they’re receiving approval from others. If that feeling underpins all of your yeses, you could be saying yes too often.
People-pleasing is an attempt at generating social currency. ‘We please others and expect something in return,’ Toru Sato says. ‘This may include things like acceptance, recognition, gratitude, kindness, promotion, money, power, respect.’ If that’s where your desire to say yes stems from, rather than because you genuinely want to do whatever is being asked of you, it could be a reason to consider saying no.
Think about what you fear will happen if you say no
Asnea Tariq studies maladaptive ‘schemas’ or thought patterns that emerge in early life that can lead to problematic ways of relating to other people. One is called the other-directed schema, and it’s related to people-pleasing. When evaluating people in her research, Tariq will ask them to rate how much they agree with statements such as: ‘I find myself clinging to people close to me because I am afraid they will leave me,’ or ‘I’m so busy doing things for the people that I care about that I have little time for myself.’
During your yes-monitoring, ask yourself a similar question: what would the consequences of saying no be? Notice if the answers are less about logistics (the laundry wouldn’t get done) and more centred on disappointing others, ruining relationships, or reflecting badly on your own character – if so, this could be a sign that you are saying yes out of fear and anxiety rather than for more practical or rational reasons.
Ultimately, the best way to tell if pleasing people has gone too far is if your behaviours in service of others are regularly causing you discomfort, leading you to feelings of sadness or anxiety, or disrupting your everyday life. Those activities are where the seeds of people-pleasing are blooming, and these are also the best moments to apply the following tips on how to say no.
Pause before answering
One of the most effective ways of saying no is to not say yes right away. It may have become a habit to simply agree when requests are thrown your way. Before even trying to say no, first try to create a gap between a request and your answer.
You might be surprised how much of an impact even the smallest delay can have on your brain’s ability to weigh up information. For instance, in a study from 2014, researchers studying visual perception showed that pausing for merely a fraction of a second was associated with participants making more accurate judgments about a visual pattern.
The longer you prolong your decision-making period, the more time you have to gather information about what you’re being asked to do, and how it might affect you. Not saying yes right away gives you space to think, Tariq says. If you’re in a face-to-face situation, you might be able to create this time for yourself by saying you need to check your diary or that you’ll get back to the person making the request as soon as you can. Obviously creating time and space is easier if a demand comes via text or email – you could simply wait before replying, or acknowledge the request and say you’ll let them know.
For when you’re mulling over whether or not to say yes, Tariq suggests considering the following: check in with your boundaries. This means considering what you’re willing to do and whether fulfilling the request aligns with those limits, or whether saying yes would lead to an overcommitment. This is related to your current capacity. Take a moment to assess your workload, schedule and energy levels. Also consider the decision’s short-term and long-term consequences. Saying yes may lead to temporary relief, but it could create more significant challenges in the future if you set up unreasonable expectations, or put yourself in a position to burn out or become unwell. Avoid guilt as a sole motivator; don’t say yes only out of the fear of disappointing others. Recognise that it’s OK to prioritise yourself alongside others.
‘Remind yourself that setting boundaries is a healthy and necessary part of maintaining balanced relationships,’ Tariq says.
Start out with small nos
Get as much practice as possible to adjust to the difficult emotions that might arise when you don’t do what you think will make others happy.
Start with nos that have lower stakes. Say no to extra guacamole (if you don’t want it) or don’t sign a petition (if you don’t care about the cause). These are cases in which saying yes would please the other person, by making your bill higher or helping someone reach their signature quota. But the interaction isn’t as personal as a family member or colleague asking for yet another favour.
Through these small nos, you can practise being more assertive. From refusing extra guac, you might move to saying no to low-stakes requests that you frequently say yes to that wouldn’t have extreme consequences, such as practising saying you’d like to take a break from doing a menial task around the office or with friends.
Another approach is to change your use of acquiescing language in your digital communications, such as when writing emails or texts. There’s even a Google Chrome extension that can help, called Just Not Sorry, that warns you every time you use phrases such as ‘I’m just’, ‘I think’, or ‘I’m no expert’, or ‘sorry’ that obscure what you might really mean or think so as not to upset other people.
If there’s a person or situation that you have a lot of trouble saying no to, small nos can build up to saying no in a more challenging circumstance. If you learn that it’s OK to say you can’t arrange the dinner reservations this weekend with a friend, and you see how they’re fine doing it themselves instead, then you’ll likely find it easier when it comes to telling an overbearing neighbour that no, you can’t water his plants for the fifth week in a row because you’re going away to visit family.
A similar technique, known as exposure, is used in CBT, where people are taught to gradually face more intense versions of their fears and phobias, starting with something very mild and building up to the more daunting. This technique has been shown to help reduce the anxiety involved in everything from agoraphobia to a fear of flying to heights, and you can also apply the same principle to making it easier to say no. You could make a ‘no hierarchy’, and try a harder no each day or week until you’re ready to try saying no in the situations that feel most difficult.
Use ‘I don’t’ rather than ‘I can’t’
When you’re ready to say no, be specific about your language. Framing your response as ‘I don’t’, compared with ‘I can’t’, has been shown to be a more effective way to refuse a request. ‘I don’t’ transforms statements into an active choice, such as ‘I don’t eat meat’, or ‘I don’t do work tasks on the weekend’. Compare that framing with ‘I can’t eat meat’ or ‘I can’t do that assignment this weekend’, which convey less agency.
In a study from 2011, researchers compared the effects of 120 students saying ‘I don’t’ versus ‘I can’t’ about food choices. The statements were self-directed: the students were told to maintain healthy food choices, and say to themselves ‘I don’t eat candy’ versus ‘I can’t eat candy’. When leaving the experiment, the participants were offered a snack for the road; 64 per cent of those who said ‘I don’t’ chose the healthier option of a granola bar over a chocolate bar, while only 39 per cent of those who said ‘I can’t’ picked the healthier choice.
‘I don’t is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering,’ wrote the social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, who wasn’t involved in the research. ‘It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower. I can’t isn’t a choice – it’s a restriction, it’s being imposed upon you. So thinking “I can’t” undermines your sense of power and personal agency.’
You can even turn this phrasing trick back on yourself, like the people in the study. Rather than thinking ‘I can’t say no’, or ‘I can’t let them down’, you might say to yourself: ‘I don’t always say yes,’ or ‘I don’t always put others’ needs before my own.’
Try a relational refusal
When saying no, you might be tempted to offer lengthy explanations for why you’re saying no. A better way to tell others why you can’t squeeze in their request is to offer a relational refusal: a way of saying no that emphasises your connections or relations to others as the underlying reason why you can’t help out this time.
The organisational psychologist Adam Grant gave this example from his own life. If a student reaches out to ask for guidance, and he’s already at capacity helping others, he might respond: ‘Students are my top priority professionally, and since I teach more than 300 students per year, I don’t have the bandwidth to take on additional mentoring.’
A similar approach for you might mean saying that you can’t help with an extra work project or family errand because of time promised to children, or advising on another project. Framing your no in this way explains your situation and how others are depending on you.
A study from 2008 applied a version of this to women negotiating for raises. The study’s first author Hannah Riley Bowles called it an ‘I-We strategy’: you say what you want, and then tie it back to what ‘we’ (you and the other person) want. In a series of experiments, the authors showed that women were more likely to get raises, and to experience fewer social consequences in the process, when they explained how what they wanted (ie, higher pay) was connected to their care for the company and the other people who worked there.
Relational nos aren’t a trick; they can be honest about your emotional commitments to both yourself and others. But this kind of no humanises your refusal and, as Grant pointed out, it highlights how it’s ultimately related to making sure your obligations to others can be upheld.
Notice others’ nos
In their book How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty (2000), Connie Hatch and Patti Breitman wrote that, once you start paying attention, you’ll see people saying no to requests all the time – without the world crumbling around them, or everyone turning their backs on them. We have all been on the receiving end of plenty of nos and made it through unscathed.
Spend a day keeping a ‘no diary’ – write down or make a note in your phone of all the times that people can’t make it to drinks after work or stop by the grocery store, not because they’re terrible people, but because they simply don’t have the capacity right now.
Reflect on the times that people have said no to you. ‘Surely you’ve had invitations turned down, been denied favours or privileges, experienced some romantic disappointments. In the end, was it really so terrible?’ Hatch and Breitman wrote. ‘Did you end up hating the person who said no to you? No, you probably survived, maybe even thrived. Your own ability to weather life’s ongoing “nos” is proof that people can withstand all kinds of rejection and move on. So don’t assume you’re going to inflict serious harm by saying no to somebody.’
In an episode of his podcast, Tim Ferriss read rejection letters that people had written to him in response to him asking them to talk for his book Tribe of Mentors (2017). Ferriss didn’t do this to ridicule or call out these people, but to highlight how these nos were compassionate and understandable: they explained why the decision wasn’t personal, and what else the person had on their plate.
Saying no might feel scary, but it’s also common. ‘If you’ve had any modicum of success, even a toehold in something that might be a success … your default answer to almost everything should be no,’ Ferriss said.
This isn’t because success or being true to yourself means isolating or not caring for others. But saying yes to everything and everyone doesn’t provide enough space for what you truly care about – whether that’s other people, hobbies, work, leisure or family. We all have to do things for others that we don’t want to at times, but the constant pressure to please for the sake of pleasing will end up crowding out your connection to what you really value.
Key points – How to say no
- People-pleasing often comes from a good place. Your difficulty saying no is quite likely a sign that you place great value in maintaining social relations, but if it goes too far, it can lead to stress and anxiety.
- Put your yeses under the microscope. Examine your motives for saying yes so often. If you frequently acquiesce out of fear and it’s disrupting your life, then that’s a sign you could benefit from learning how to say no more often and more effectively.
- Pause before answering. Before racing to answer any demands, spend time considering factors such as your other commitments and the long-term consequences of saying yes.
- Start out with small nos. Similar to how exposure therapy is used to help overcome phobias, you could start with saying no in low-stakes situations and then build up to more challenging and awkward contexts.
- Use ‘I don’t’ rather than ‘I can’t’. The language you use when you make refusals can make a difference to how you feel – for instance, saying ‘I don’t eat meat’ is more empowering than ‘I can’t eat meat.’
- Try relational refusal. Saying no in a way that emphasises your connections or relations to others (as the reason you can’t agree to this particular request) will humanise your refusal and highlight how you’re upholding your other obligations.
- Notice others’ nos. Saying no might feel scary, but it’s also common. Spend time observing how often other people say no and are left unscathed.
Saying yes all the time would backfire anyway
The irony of excessive people-pleasing is that, ultimately, it might not have the effect you think it will. Consider a study from 2021 that asked people to name their friends’ best and worst traits. Although traits related to having an agreeable personality were usually seen as a good thing, there were times when participants said it went too far – and being a people pleaser was one of them.
People-pleasing can even be viewed as a form of lying or manipulation, Asnea Tariq says. ‘There is some evidence that says that people use pleasing people to gain benefits for themselves as well,’ she says, and that others can pick up on this. ‘It’s a kind of a manipulative tactic to achieve their own goals.’ It can also overlap with a feeling of superiority, or having control over others. This isn’t to suggest that these are your motives; rather it’s about questioning any assumptions you have that other people will always view your willingness to say yes in a positive light.
People-pleasing doesn’t let others around you know what you’re really feeling, and if you inevitably can’t keep the promises you’ve made to others down the road, they’ll be surprised at what you’ve been holding back. Adam Grant wrote how he learned ‘there’s a big difference between pleasing people and helping them’.
Of course, if you suddenly start to say no more than you used to, there’s going to be a period when people around you might find this difficult to deal with. Although this might be temporarily uncomfortable, bear in mind that it will also ultimately lead to longer, more sustainable relationships.
Links & books
The psychologist Harriet Braiker’s book The Disease to Please (2000) is a classic in the people-pleasing literature.
The psychologist Adam Grant’s book Give and Take (2013) is about how to balance between being a giver and a taker.
Watch the comedian Salma Hindy’s TEDx talk, ‘Why People Pleasing Is Hurting You’ (2019).