Learning to say ‘no’

People-pleasers habitually turn away from their own self-interest so that they will not disappoint the person making a request.

No (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Judy is a woman in her late 30s who has never been married. She came to therapy to get help with her eating disorder and to overcome her chronic depression and anxiety. One of her most prominent issues is that she is a people-pleaser. She can never say “no” to almost anyone and always feels responsible for everything. She has been like this all her life, and it has been the root cause of so much of her suffering and many failed relationships.
Judy is a familiar type of person to many of us. She is the kind of person who always bends over backwards to help the other person, with little regard for her own self-interests.
People-pleasers habitually turn away from their own self-interest so that they will not disappoint the person making a request.
What we know about this type of person is that their extreme lack of self-regard comes at a high price. People-pleasers usually suffer quietly under the surface. Many of them have depression and severe anxiety. Others may release much of their repressed anger through passive-aggressive behavior. Their friends or close family members see them as a human doormat and often take advantage of their readiness to please.
In the World of Psychology blog, Ross Rosenberg (2013) writes that people like Judy who cannot say “no” are suffering from a condition called codependency. “Codependents are essentially stuck in a pattern of giving and sacrificing... without the possibility of ever receiving.” Rosenberg says this behavior is learned from childhood, usually in the context of a narcissistic parent whose “conditional love” demanded both compliance from the child and mirroring of the parent at the expense of the child developing autonomy. As a result, this learned behavior thwarted the child’s ability to learn healthy self-boundaries.
For the child, it seems that he/she was emotionally rewarded when his/her behavior pleased the parent. However, the parent rarely gave anything back to the child. This highly enticing reward draws the child into a behavioral pattern that is costly to his/ her emotional health. The child and later codependent adult subconsciously continues this behavior but with great resentment and suffers because of his/her abandonment of self. In essence, these are chronic “yes” people.
I am not implying that it is wrong to say “yes” when asked a favor. In fact, in many situations saying “yes” is essential for self-perseverance and relationship-building in personal or job-related relationships. However, writes Rosenberg, there must be a healthy midpoint behavior between the total “other orientation” and total “self-orientation.” The author states clearly that the balance of doing for the other person and doing what is in your own best interest enhances mental health.
Many people have difficulty saying “no” some of the time. We are, after all, social creatures and need to be accepted by our peers and anyone important in our lives. Many of us, from time to time, feel obligated to please and do everything to avoid a conflict. We do not want to be perceived as bad people and may not want to let important people down.
However, for Judy the severity of “other orientation” at the expense of herself was a central factor leading to her emotional dysfunction.
One of the areas I worked on with Judy was to try to challenge her beliefs about the anger she would induce in others if she would say “no.” I pointed out to her that social scientists have found that people-pleasers have “harshness biases,” a tendency to believe that others will judge them more severely than they actually do. Using cognitive-behavioral therapy, I was able to help Judy to change her maladaptive beliefs about the consequences of saying “no.”
She began to test out this theory by saying “no” and saw that most people were not so upset with her for declining their request.
Therapy helped Judy realize that most of her worry about the angry response toward her for saying “no” was learned and in her head, not the actual response of the other person.
She was able to continue to try to live by this new way of thinking and gradually began to see that the world would not fall apart if she were to show more of a self-orientation in dealing with requests. Judy indeed began to feel better as she progressed in learning to say “no” more often.
Elizabeth Bernstein (Wall Street Journal, 2014) gives some very useful advice to people wanting to be more effective in saying “no.” This advice can be helpful for anyone who occasionally feels uncomfortable saying “no,” as well as for the people-pleasers: • Rehearse saying “no” ahead of time so you will not cave in at the last second.
• Keep a version of “I’ll think about it” ready for when a request takes you by surprise.
• Time is your friend. Delaying your answer raises the possibility of saying “no.” You can say, “I will get back to you,” “I have to speak to my spouse,” or “I have to check my appointment book.” Sometimes during this delay, the requester may ask another person, letting you off the hook.
• Soften your tone of voice so that your “no” will not hurt the other person so much.
One interviewer asked Bernstein if it is ethical to lie when giving a reason for saying “no” when asked to do something. She was adamant about the use of a white lie that has some credibility to it. Not only can a white lie potentially decrease the discomfort of the person who says “no,” but it may also decrease the negative impact of the “no” on the person making the request.
People feel and function well when they balance a healthy “other orientation” with a healthy “self-orientation.” The good news is that while some people do this naturally, there is help for others to learn these skills.
Dr. Michael Gropper is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana. He also provides online videoconferencing psychotherapy: www.drmikegropper.weebly.com; drmikegropper@ gmail.com